Task Forces


A Year of Victories. What’s Next?

Sergei Karaganov

In early 2014, during the Christmas holidays, when it was already clear that the confrontation with the West was getting increasingly tense, I read again Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace. I was struck by a phrase that had not caught my attention before: “A battle is won by those who firmly resolve to win it.” I realized then that Russia would resolve and win.

Three years later, I am satisfied to say: the tide has turned. The lost battles for Smolensk (twice – in 1812 and 1941) and Austerlitz, and the hard-won battles for Borodino, Stalingrad and Kursk are already in the past. There are still many dangers ahead; the economic base is still weak; and reforms, the fight against corruption, and the change of elites are proceeding too slowly. But in foreign policy Russia has held out, it is winning in almost all areas and has significantly strengthened its international positions. Factors that helped it achieve this are the will, the unification of the majority of people and elites, brilliant diplomacy, and the ability for strategic foresight.

Conditions are now shaping up for the formation of a new, more just and stable world order.

Luck is returning to Russia again. Oil prices have stabilized at an acceptable level, and the forces in the world which sought Russia’s defeat and openly declared their desire to “tear apart” its economy, “change its regime” or force it to change its policy by means of sanctions, “isolation” or “strategic patience,” are falling apart.

But luck favors the strong, and Russia’s victories are largely man-made. They are the result of a realistic assessment of the world and adequate decisions.

When in the second half of the 2000s the probability of a new large-scale war obviously increased due to the Georgia conflict, NATO’s decision to open the way for Ukraine and Georgia to join it, the growing destabilization of the Middle East, and attempts by a losing West to take a revenge, Russia started an effective military reform. When time came for a direct political confrontation, few wanted to raise the stakes.

For almost twenty-five years, Russia teetered on the brink of “Weimar syndrome” – a sense of humiliation and injustice thrusted on it by Western policies. But, unlike Germany in the 1930s, Russia managed not to be drawn into it; it launched a political fight, held out and ended up the winner. Also, a very promising radical change involved another facet of the mindset of the leading part of the Russian ruling elite and the majority of the population. Over the past 300 years, geo-strategically and culturally they saw themselves and their country as a periphery of Europe. In 2011-2012, Russia sharply intensified its turn towards the growing economic and political markets of Asia. This coincided in time with the aggravation of the political and ideological confrontation with post-modern Europe, which largely forgot its value roots. Russia came to understand that the European Union had entered into a comprehensive crisis, which made it an unpromising political partner. Having realized that, Russia mentally turned from a European province into the center of rising Eurasia, into a conservative yet forward-looking global, Atlantic-Pacific power, which, I hope, will not have any global commitments, except for maintaining peace and ensuring its vital interests.

The Syria operation has been successful so far. Russia has economically achieved its political goals; put an end to the practice of “regime change;” demonstrated the new might of its armed forces, strengthened in real combat; and thereby bolstered deterrence. In addition, Russia has shifted the confrontation imposed on it to the area where it is most efficient, namely, intellect, will and hard power.

After numerous futile attempts to start a peace process with Western countries, Russia started it with major regional powers – Iran and Turkey. Previously, Russia, by means of a firm policy, had normalized relations with Ankara after it apologized for the downed Russian fighter aircraft. Russia proved its seriousness once again, which was particularly evident against the background of the United States’ flip-flops, concessions, and arm-twisting policy towards Europeans.

So far, Russia has avoided being hopelessly and deeply involved in the conflict, which its foes openly desired.

Regardless of the outcome of the Syrian civil war, which may last indefinitely, the victory in Aleppo, achieved by Russia together with the legitimate government’s forces, has won Russia the status of a key regional (for the Middle East) and global power. Without this status, the bulk of the Russian elites and society, intoxicated since the times of Peter the Great by the sweet poison of greatpowerness, felt uncomfortable. Also, Russia has restored the global balance, which was upset after the Soviet Union temporarily left the world stage, resulting in NATO turning from a defensive alliance into an aggressor in Yugoslavia, Iraq and Libya.

The West, which had been losing since the late 2000s, made its strongest attack, or counterattack, in the sphere of information, where it still holds key positions. It was believed that it had a winning position in soft power: the way of life in relatively free and, most importantly, rich Western societies was considered more attractive. Beginning in 2013, the Western anti-Russian propaganda became total: no good or at least correct news about Russia.

But in this sphere Russia managed to change the situation as well: it is winning, despite the overwhelming numerical superiority of the anti-Russian media. They told so many lies that made the entire Western propaganda look false.

Several circumstances played the main role in the change. Firstly, Russia pursued a firm and calm policy. Its leaders, unlike Western counterparts, did not resort to verbal attacks. Russia proposed viable principles that are attractive for the majority of peoples and countries: protection of national sovereignty, freedom of political and cultural choice, and normal values of public and private life that are rooted in thousands of years of human history. This set of values proved to be a great soft power asset.

Another factor was the strong conservative reaction in the West and the whole world to efforts to impose postmodernism, ultra-liberalism and globalization on their societies. Unlike the Soviet Union, Russia took “the right side of history.”

The year 2016 saw a turning point in the information warfare as the West switched over from the information and political offense to defense. The uproar over omnipotent “Russian hackers” capable of undermining the political structures of the West showed its previously concealed inner weakness.

The main thing now is not to give way to “dizziness with success.”

Still more important is to start economic growth and development in order not to fall behind, yet another time, the new technological revolution. Economic weakness provokes external pressure.

In fact, Russia’s foreign-policy strategy for the coming years is clear enough, at least to me, to the extent possible amid the dizzying changes in the world.

Russia should continue the modernization of its armed forces, but with less spending, and Vladimir Putin has already confirmed it. Russia’s achievements, I’m sure, have sent a clear signal to all.

The military-political deterrence should not be weakened. Historically losing elites can no longer send aircraft carriers or threaten to push the nuclear button. Yet provocations will continue. They are now in malevolent despair and will do their best to prevent a normalization of Russian-U.S. relations.

Russia needs to improve and strengthen its economic diplomacy.

We are now witnessing the de-liberalization, and even partial de-globalization and politicization, of the world economy. Competitors constantly accuse Russia of skillfully using economic weapons – unfortunately, largely falsely.

As for the constructive agenda, we must continue and speed up our “turn towards the East.” This time we should also involve Japan, South Korea, and ASEAN countries.

And, of course, we need to develop our major achievement of recent years – the de facto strategic alliance with China. This is particularly important considering attempts to drive a wedge between us, which the new American administration will inevitably – and quite rationally from its point of view – make.

Competition with the U.S. will not disappear. It may be tough and even dangerous. But the coming of the new administration, which wants to focus on domestic affairs, is creating a window of opportunity for normalizing bilateral relations and building them on the basis of interests and balances. And Russia should use it.

It would be rational if both countries conduct a policy of destroying the Islamic State (banned in the Russian Federation) and supporting the existing states and regimes. Any weakening of statehood, especially in such a sensitive region, is a proven wrong.

Russia should also try to reach agreement with the Americans on the prevention of re-militarization of Europe, which is becoming increasingly fragile due to the deepening crisis of the European Union.

Finally, it is necessary to take the edge off the military-strategic confrontation – not through counterproductive or outdated disarmament negotiations but through a broad dialogue among all nuclear powers with a view to strengthening and stabilizing nuclear deterrence. It is time to leave behind the reactionary idealism of dreams about nuclear disarmament and understand that it is nuclear deterrence, despite its dangers, that saved the world from a catastrophe in the past and is saving it now, in the era of stunningly rapid and dangerous changes and new challenges, including cyber threats.

In the coming years, when Russia has built up its Eastern potential and become a full-fledged and future-oriented Pacific-Atlantic power, it should start thinking of mending its relations with Europe, damaged by the greed and thoughtlessness of neighboring countries.

Major accords with the EU are unlikely, but discussions should be held in order to facilitate the creation of a new partnership of Greater Eurasia, which should include Europe as well. For the time being, Russia should develop relations with the leading countries, working towards the further isolation or self-isolation of forces from the bygone era.

We should not reanimate old and failed negotiation formats, into which our partners will try to involve us as they were convenient to them. A resumption of the Russia-NATO political dialogue would be a mistake bordering on pacification and legitimization of the aggressor. The Russia-NATO dialogue should be reoriented to the military level to prevent incidents, while interaction with the OSCE should focus on the coordination of efforts to combat terrorism, cyber threats and illegal migration, the protection of external borders, and the prevention and settlement of crises – the Ukrainian crisis and similar future crises in the EU.

The Ukrainian situation is hopeless for the time being. While continuing to insist on full implementation of the Minsk accords and building bypass transport routes, Russia should focus on an early provision of a wide autonomy for the Donetsk People’s Republic within Ukraine. Later, Russia should work towards the formation of a neutral, independent and Russia-friendly Ukraine or ukraines, if Kiev fails to retain control over the entire territory of the country. The only way for Ukraine to survive is to turn from the agent of rivalry into a bridge and a buffer.

The old world order is destroyed. We must start building a new one. I think it will be softly bipolar. One pole will be the United States, and the other, Greater Eurasia, where China will be the economic leader and where there will be no hegemon. Beijing will be counterbalanced by Moscow, New Delhi, Tokyo, Seoul, Tehran, Jakarta and Manila.

But an absolutely new world will also need a global governance body to maintain security in it and avoid global conflicts.

The UN Security Council is indispensable, but it is laden with the inertia of bygone times.

I think that sooner or later the world will return to the Concert of Nations concept. At first, if these efforts succeed, we will have a Group of Three – Russia, China and the U.S. later, they could be joined by India, Japan, perhaps Brazil, and a leading European country, if the EU gives up its “uniform” policy, which makes it a political zero, and returns to coordinated policies of sovereign states.

Let me resort again to the historical parallel which I mentioned at the beginning of this article. If Austerlitz and Borodino, Stalingrad and Kursk are really in the past, it is better to go not to Paris, as in 1814, or Berlin, as in 1945, but right to Vienna of 1815, to a new, future-oriented Concert of Nations and build a governance structure for a new world. Without such a return to the roots, chaos will keep growing and will eventually bring a disaster to all of us.