A lively brainstorming process has been underway in Russia on the future face of the country and Russia’s position within the international system. The two annual international conferences held in Russia were also devoted to these topics: the Valdai International Discussion Club, held under the auspices of Prime Minister Putin, and the Yaroslavl Forum, sponsored by President Medvedev. These conferences considered fundamental issues concerning Russia’s future political path: whether it is a superpower competing for its position in the world – which is how Russia behaved in the past decade – or a partner in one of the international blocs. At the same time, the issue of what the country will look like domestically was discussed at great length, with an emphasis on the subject of modernization. There is a sense in Russia that there is a loss of national direction, yet Russia will not extricate itself from its crises on its own. One possible solution is for Russia to become a partner in an international framework that will help it face challenges in the international arena and overcome growing economic gaps. However, such a partnership requires implementation of economic reforms and coordinating expectations about democracy – two related areas.
In the political realm, Russia is at a crossroads after a decade of ups and downs in its relations with the West. This has included periods of security cooperation (Russian aid in the war on terror), as well as tensions resulting from Russian assertiveness in the international arena, its efforts to curb the expansion of NATO, and the war with Georgia. In Russia, regional activity aimed at establishing an equal or preferred status for the country is seen as a desirable foreign policy approach. At the same time, Russian-American relations have been positive for a year as a result of President Obama’s “reset” policy, which has also enabled Russian participation in sanctions against Iran, albeit with reservations. A certain sluggishness is currently evident in international relations between Russia and the West, which Russia attributes to a parallel weakening of Russia, the United States, and Europe. There are those who maintain, Prime Minister Putin among them, that global competition over leadership continues, and Russia is playing an active role in it. On the other hand, the idea of establishing a new world order is being promoted, with a preference for joining an existing or new international union.
As part of an examination of possible foreign and defense policy concepts in Russia, a model was examined that would allow Russia both a superpower status and an appropriate partner for designing a common future while extricating Russia from its crises. Possible candidates for this combination are:
- The West, in the form of the European Union. In this context, the possibilities range from defense cooperation through Russia’s participation in NATO, preferably on preferred terms, to integration in the European Union. On this issue, a plan was recently presented to establish a new unified framework for Russia and Europe as an alternative to NATO and the European Union. The Americans are mentioned in this connection mostly in the context of NATO, although there are those who are thinking in terms of a tripartite alliance involving Russia, the United States, and Europe. (In 2008, Medvedev’s proposal was published regarding Russia’s integration into NATO, which partially because of the war with Georgia was not successful.)
- The Far East, mostly in the form of China, although other partners in the Pacific space and/or the Indian Ocean are also mentioned. Not-insignificant elements in Russia believe that the connection with China is the preferred one, while others think that China is the competitor, and that in the future, it will be Russia’s adversary.
Without ruling out other possibilities, the Russian elite tends to favor Europe as a choice partner, and there are those who believe that the Russian embrace of Europe is a fait accompli. In the meantime, however, it is difficult to see parallel expressions of enthusiasm from the West, which finds it hard to view Russia as a partner of equal value.
Internal Russian affairs, which themselves are fraught with difficulty, are focused on the issue of modernization, deemed a preferred national goal for Russia. Although there are many questions about the actual need, timing, and format of the project, the Russian leadership senses that without modernization, they will not survive, but that to implement it, they need Western help. The economic modernization plan is supposed to advance innovative technology projects while freeing Russia from the status of an exporter whose main product is energy resources. Among the Russian elite, there is an opinion that economic modernization is not enough, and that it is impossible to avoid treating the political and social dimensions – areas in which embarrassing gaps have been created when compared to Western norms. Many people, first and foremost President Medvedev, now accept that without deep democratization, any modernization program will fail.
Nor are Middle Eastern affairs and Israel absent from the discussions. First, the Middle East is viewed as an important strategic region, home to intense global competition. Russia has identified a wide range of interests in the Middle East, and there are those who believe that it is more important than the West or China. In the meantime, while competing with the West, Russia is continuing activity in the region to advance its influential status. On the other hand, the Islamic issue, particularly radical Islam, is identified as a clear and immediate threat to Russia and the areas in which it has interests. The Russians view with growing concern the accelerated process of Islamization in Central Asia, not to mention Islamic terror in Russia proper. On this issue, according to Prime Minister Putin, the Russians are determined to fight intensely, but not at the expense of Russia’s relations with countries that are important to it in the Middle East.
On Iran, the Russians admit that the Iranian nuclear program is a significant problem, but at the same time they treat it as a fait accompli. As far as they are concerned, Iran will be established as a regional superpower. The Russians are not eager to tighten sanctions on Iran, and prefer engagement to confrontation. They are vehemently opposed to enrichment of uranium for military purposes, and suggest that the Iranians are now prepared to concede on enriching uranium for military purposes, as well as on the inventories in their possession. In contrast, the Russians recognize the Iranian right to obtain fuel for civilian nuclear reactors.
For its part, Israel is valued as a potential ally. There have even been proposals to include Israel along with Russia in the future international union mentioned above. There are also disagreements. There are those who present Israeli diplomacy as having succeeded in turning the Iranian issue into a major international problem in the Middle East in place of the Palestinian problem. On the Iranian issue, complex messages are being conveyed that call upon Israel not to attack. There are those who believe that such an attack is a near certainty, and means that an all-out war will bring about new arrangements in the world. They believe that Russia must prepare for such a situation. Other voices relate to Israel’s activity in the Caucasus region, Azerbaijan, and Georgia, not necessarily to Russia’s benefit. Likewise, the Russian leadership reiterates its commitment to the peace process and to Israel, particularly in light of the fact that there are many Russian immigrants in Israel whom Russia is not prepared to abandon. There are also messages that Russia would be prepared to be involved in the future security arrangements in the Middle East.
Zvi Magen joined the INSS research staff following a long career in Israel's Foreign Service. From 1993-1997 he served as Israel's ambassador to the Ukraine, and in 1998-1999 he served as Israel's ambassador to Russia
This article was first published in INSS Insight No. 210, September 30, 2010
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