Hard Politics and Soft Politics: The U.S.-Russia Struggle to Lead the New World Order

April 1, 2014

By Nikolai Zlobin, President of the Center on Global Interests.

The discussion surrounding Russia’s annexation of Crimea is sure to occupy the international community for some time. The world might never reach even a relative consensus on the issue. But is that even necessary?

In the United States, for example, there will always be experts and politicians who will consider the events in Crimea to be unacceptable. They make up the majority. Sixty-eight percent of Americans today consider Russia an enemy country—the debate is about just how much of an enemy Russia is. There are also those who acknowledge Russia’s logic; they believe Moscow couldn’t have acted any other way in this particular situation and that its behavior was fully in line with its national interests. The latter group is fewer in number, but it still isn’t small. There is also a third group of people who take a neutral position. Rather than looking at the situation through black-and-white glasses, they try to see the full range of colors and contradictions in the Crimean story.

More than 60 percent of Americans believe the United States shouldn’t interfere in the conflict between Ukraine and Russia.

In any case, a broad discussion is unfolding in America. Its main topic isn’t about sanctions, but about the overall necessity to understand its own mistakes and miscalculations, to develop an adequate approach to the new Russia, and to chart its own new political course. In this case, consensus would only hinder the debate. Those who hold radically different views can, as it often happens, come out for mass demonstrations without worrying that they’ll be branded as national traitors. They are convinced, in their American naiveté, that they have no less of a right to determine these interests than the people who currently occupy the White House and Congress.

Granted, political debate is not a guarantee that the government won’t make bad decisions—U.S. foreign policy is a good illustration of that. The scores are usually settled when election time rolls around. But it goes without saying that the best guarantee of bad decisions is precisely the absence of debate and discussion, and the portrayal of any dissenting voice as an act of national betrayal.

It’s particularly touching to see how Russia’s main propagandists have now been forced to make a 180° turn in order to justify the actions of their own government. And that’s no surprise. During the last 15 years, Russia has explicitly rejected the legitimacy of the Western campaign in Kosovo. Now, it suddenly turns out that Kosovo is the main argument in support of the Kremlin’s campaign in Crimea.

Personally, I’m inclined to agree with the Russian president on this one. Despite multiple serious differences, the two cases are alike in one main aspect—from the point of view of the law. But what about those poor Russian pundits who built their careers on fiercely criticizing Western action in Kosovo? Today they are forced to make an urgent U-turn, or their heads could be next.

Moscow is basically admitting that it now supports the legitimacy of the Western campaign in Kosovo and is, in essence, disavowing its long-standing opposition.

We’ve seen this scenario once before. After the Georgian war of 2008, Moscow—also not without a point—claimed it hadn’t done anything in South Ossetia that the West hadn’t done already. Even back then Western actions were used to legitimize Russia’s own behavior, which the West eventually, though unwillingly, accepted. In August 2008 it was Russia who put the final nail into the coffin of the post-war Yalta system, which it had until then almost single-handedly defended.

But if back then Russia had followed the West, then it overtook the West in Crimea. We could say that Russia has now constructed a concrete sarcophagus like the one in Chernobyl over the grave of the Yalta system as a guarantee that the old international order could never be reactivated.

To everyone’s surprise, Moscow took the Western approach in Crimea but went much further than the West would ever go, becoming, in a certain respect, the leader of a new trend in a new world order.

This is particularly true for Russia’s approach to national sovereignty, territorial integrity and the right to ensure domestic stability using outside force.

On the one hand, it’s a welcome development: the monopoly of the West over the creation of the new world order had not only resulted in the imbalance we’ve observed during the last 20 years, but also predestined the new world order to a short life span. The result is what we’ve seen over the past two months. But on the other hand, no one here expected Russia to act so crudely, so cynically and so straightforwardly in Crimea. It’s clear that in the context of a collapsing Ukrainian government, it would have been possible to take Crimea under control using more delicate means that wouldn’t have led to international isolation for Russia, the complete political devaluation of the UNSC or the collapse of the G8, and wouldn’t have turned the remaining part of Ukraine into a state hostile to Moscow.

It seems Russia’s goal was to act as swiftly and defiantly as possible. Rightly or not, many in Washington are attributing this to the idea that the Crimean campaign was carried out by the Russian siloviki and not the foreign policy elite. In other words, the main disagreement between Moscow and the West in this case is not about the foundations of the new world order, but about the method of its formation.

The West and Europe in particular seem to be supporting “soft” politics, while Russia, it appears, is for “hard” politics.

In all fairness it should be said that Russia, as a country with a relatively weak economy and a rather unattractive political model, doesn’t have as many levers of influence over global developments as the United States, China, or the EU. Accepting a Chinese system of international order is, naturally, not an option for Russia, while channeling the West is simply not within its means. I can’t agree with Obama’s claim that Russia is a “regional power;” however, Moscow’s use of military force against a friendly neighboring state that was significantly weakened by internal problems only served to reinforce that image. That would be my first point.

The second point is that the international reaction to Crimea is partly related to the fact that both China and the West clearly saw that Russia is willing to go far in order to participate in the restructuring of the post-Cold War order. In other words, Russia’s willing to start building a new world order—and as an equal, not a junior partner.

The global political environment is just as competitive and egotistical as, say, a farmer’s market or an office, where the most intense competition takes place between equals rather than enemies.

For example, the apple vendors aren’t competing with the meat vendors. They’re competing with the others who are selling apples.

Today, Russia and the West are butting heads not over differing visions for the future world order—their visions are about as different as two sides of a coin—but over the methods of its formation and their relative positions within it. From here stems Washington’s urge to punish—in other words, to isolate— Russia, in order to cut it off from this process.

A completely different vision—one that is neither Russian nor Western—belongs to China, which explains its current approach of conditional support to a weaker Russia in its opposition to the West. It’s nothing personal: if the United States were weaker today, China would be on its side. In fact, the more Russia and the West undermine each other, the easier it’ll be for Beijing to reshape the world according to its own design. Both Russia and the West are building, albeit in different ways, the same world order, although they don’t want to admit it directly. Instead they keep trying to find differences in each other’s domestic values, and on that basis to establish new rules of mutual confrontation reminiscent of the Cold War that was so comfortable for both sides. This time, however, it wouldn’t be a war of two ideologies but of two moral codes.

Thirdly, it’s clear the positions of both sides have their weak points. In my view, all the weaknesses in the Russian position hinge on a single systemic weakness in the position of the West, and of the United States in particular. The core of it lies in that, even after a quarter-century since the end of the Cold War, the United States has continued to treat Russia as a defeated country that requires political control and instruction from the side of the winner. Even if this approach had political merit in the beginning, clearly Washington should have started to change its approach about 10-12 years ago by gradually beginning to accept Russia as an independent and self-sufficient country.

But instead, the American understanding of Russia has significantly degraded since that time. The domestic elites have so far been unable to find a new narrative with which to read Russia, and they’re paying for it now as a result. The West hasn’t learned how to interact with the Russia that exists. Instead it continues to work with a country that has long since stopped existing, but which is kept alive in American political and expert circles. As a result, nostalgia for the Cold War—which until recently had been minimal in Russia—has significantly increased in popularity. We have to be honest and admit that it wasn’t the Kremlin that brought it back.

Fourth, competing with those who are similar to you is much harder than competing with your enemies. Moscow made a personal decision to move from the “junior group,” where it spent many years sorting out regional conflicts between smaller states of the former Soviet Union, to the “grownup group” of big politics, where there is more to be won but where the punches are much more painful, and where you need a whole new political caliber. It’s clear that force alone isn’t enough. Now, instead of the politics of a lumberjack, Russia needs the precision of a neurosurgeon. It appears the standoff is only just beginning, and it won’t be of the military kind.

But I’m skeptical about Russia’s ability to win a new Cold War. The gung-ho approach in Russian society today is alarming. Meanwhile, the elite and the expert community who, with the wave of a magic wand, went from unanimously condemning the NATO campaign in Kosovo to unanimously supporting the legitimacy of the Crimean operation on the basis of that same campaign, cannot provide a legitimate intellectual underpinning to the Russian government.

An effective foreign policy strategy can only be developed by a national elite that doesn’t depend on national sentiments, individual whims, approval ratings or electoral challenges in either the Washington White House or the Moscow Kremlin. Judging by the nascent discussion here, the United States, at least, seems to have one.

Translated by Olga Kuzmina. This column was first published April 1, 2014 in Gazeta.ru.

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