Russian diplomacy and the lessons of 2020

By Nina Bachkatov

Recent international events have offered Russian diplomacy a source of inspiration it might have lacked otherwise. While the Kremlin was pretty much in a reactive drive, not without success as demonstrated in South Caucasus, it found in those events a new impulse towards its decades-old objective – to force the international community to recognise that Russia is not only back, but back as a global actor.

The list includes the early January assault on the Capitol in Washington; the hasty signature in late December of a trade agreement between EU and China despite opposition from Washington and from many Europeans, notably among MEPs; the successful tests by president Erdogan of the West’s lack of resolve in their declared strategic areas, in the Caucasus, the Middle East and the Mediterranean.

After a year of pandemic, international responses to the Covid exposed that, in term of efficiency, balance between public health and economy survival, level of popular distrust towards the authorities, the differences between democratic and non-democratic regimes run thinner than expected.

Swimming with the tide

In the same time, those events provide an uncertain international background, a situation that explains the caution of President Putin’s latest speeches, in which he tried to find the right balance between self-congratulation and expression of readiness for conditional co-operation. While avoiding Chinese confrontational tone, he made clear that Russia has changed and has to be treated differently. It does not want any more to integrate the West, considering that Russia has a larger, global, playing field.

Basically, Russia shares with its Chinese ‘strategic ally’ the conviction that their foreign policies have to integrate the naked fact that the West is not, anymore, the all-powerful and all-inspiring beacon of democracy; nor the sole source of innovation; nor a reliable support for its declared allies. Both presidents like to see the Western ego being cut to size, but none of them want to trap themselves into an openly anti-Western front.

Many Russian analysts, even Putin’s critics, see the tide continuing to turn away from the time when Moscow’ ambition of returning to its period of global influence was based on the reconquest of regions lost after the Soviet collapse. Later on, Russian diplomacy had been hampered by the economic collapse and internal chaos. Today, a simple look at a world’s map shows the Russia’s increased presence on all the continents, albeit with huge differences.

New approaches

Russia’s foreign relations have been oiled by its military reforms, notably its capacity to projects military forces far from home (as the world discovered in Syria), and in getting permissions to build distant military facilities. In the economic field, Russia has offset its limited financial capabilities by multiplying contracts not based on direct investments, but on co-participation in projects. Typically, exchanging access for Russian companies to natural resources and infrastructures in exchange of Russian know-how, modernisation of old infrastructure and construction of new ones.

All the same, the successes met in the field cannot hide the fact that Russia foreign diplomacy is still hitting a double wall, material and civilisational. Moscow cannot, still, concurrence Western penetration, and reputation for high quality and legal security. Russia is also vulnerable to economic sanctions that are, especially from the U.S., a barely disguised way to wage an economic war against economic rivals. And, contrary to China, the Russian State does not have the same level of control over the economy, and private companies cannot count on seemingly illimited money’s resources. But Russia benefits of a deeper knowledge of the countries where it ventures, and pays more attention to cultural or societal dimensions.

Lack of model

The second handicap is the absence of an attractive Russian model comparable to that of the USSR, which was based on an ideology capable to inspire people everywhere in the world. Russian classical culture, that has been central to the image of Russia abroad, is now the parish of a dwindling world of afficionados. Russian television or films productions are seldom available in the West. Russians are addicted to social medias; but their exchanges attract few followers outside the narrow circles of Russian affairs’ observers. In any case, ‘global people’ want to eat pizzas, more than pirojki.

It still can gain some returns thanks to Covid. Inside Russia, people grumbled against Putin’s government, but they were hurt by the Western attitude towards the Russian vaccine, proud as they are of the Russian scientific potential.

Outside Russia, the Kremlin has skillfully exploited the feeling of many countries, especially in emerging markets, that the health of their population was less important for the West than the will to maintain their monopolies. To answer to this fear, and the fear that the Western population will be served first, Russia proposed its vaccines and medical infrastructures to its neighbours, and then further to Latin America and Africa. It is now proposing cooperation for production, with India (its main producer of medications) and even with Germany.

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