Sergei Kortunov, Deputy Chairman of the Panel of Experts at the Federation Council Committee on International Affairs, for RIA Novosti


The most difficult task is to give a long-term forecast (20-25 years). If the world community fails to establish a regional security system in Europe and the Asia Pacific region, and create more effective mechanisms for ensuring global security under the aegis of the updated UN, new centers of power may start fighting fiercely for domination of regions which are vital for Russia, or even located on its territory. In that case, Russia may be pushed to the outskirts of global economic advancement.

The biggest potential threat for Russia is the emergence of unfriendly or even hostile states along its border, especially after the events in Chechnya. Russia may be drawn into local or regional armed conflicts of varying scale, which are most likely to break out in the areas bordering on the former Soviet Central Asian republics and the South Caucasus.

The loss of the Far East, Kaliningrad and Karelia, and the formation of a cordon around Russia present the biggest threat to its territorial integrity. In that case, Russia would be increasingly isolated from the most advanced and economically promising partners in Asia: Japan, South Korea, China, the Philippines, Malaysia, and Taiwan, and from Finland in Europe.

The continued depopulation of Siberia and the Far East are of special concern in this context. The government does not have a purposeful policy for attracting investment and people into these regions. A strategic reserve for Russia’s development, they may become geo-economically, and later on geo-strategically, vulnerable. Instead of promoting Russia’s advance, these territories may generate instability and become an object of rivalry between the great powers.

There is another associated problem. The West is clearly out to weaken Russia as a competitor in the global market. The situation with high technologies bears this out, not to mention trade in arms. All promises of aid to Russia turn into tough-sounding declarations when it comes to the redistribution of spheres of influence in the world market. Although its integration into the Western-controlled economic space is proceeding rather quickly, Russia may find itself in a far-from-equitable position, and may not become a fully-fledged member of international economic organizations.

Finally, there is a risk (which seems unlikely today) of Japan, China, Germany, Turkey, the United States, and other big countries splitting the entire post-Soviet space into their spheres of influence (attempts to implement a similar scenario were made in 1917). In this case, Russia will cease to exist. It will simply be taken over by other centers of power.

This is a worst-case scenario, and Russia can well avoid it if it is active. Never in Russia’s history has the world situation been so favorable for its relatively calm domestic progress as it is in now, at the beginning of the 21st century. The absence of large-scale outside threats (which cast doubt on the very existence of Russia and the Russian ethnic group in the 20th, 19th, 17th, and 12th centuries) is probably allowing the country to concentrate on domestic problems for the first time. In foreign policy, Russia should continue firmly upholding its national interests and taking part in European and international affairs.

On the other hand, it is also the first time in Russia’s history that its resources for domestic development and conduct of foreign policy are so limited. This duality explains why Russia does not have a totally consistent foreign policy on such issues as the CIS, NATO’s expansion, a settlement in the Middle East, the nuclear programs of Iran and North Korea, cooperation with the EU and the Muslim world, the ABM Treaty, and the crisis in Iraq. Considering that steady democratic development is an absolute priority, and that its resources are limited, Russia cannot allow itself to get involved in other people’s wars or embark on any adventures. In this context, its foreign policy cannot even be too ambitious, let alone aggressive. In the world arena, it should pursue a strategy of “selective involvement”.

However, there is no reason to be too pessimistic. The postwar development of Japan and Germany shows that it is possible to keep the status of great power even if foreign policy ambitions are considerably limited. True, Europe had the Marshall Plan, and Japan followed a similar scheme. But unlike those two countries, Russia did not lose a world war, and nobody denies it great power status, which is buttressed by its nuclear capacity.

Domestic history is quite indicative in this respect. Let’s take the last four centuries. After the Time of Troubles was over and the truce of Deulino was signed with Poland in 1619, Russia was not simply weak – it was utterly devastated and totally exhausted. Until the end of the 17th century (for about 80 years), Russia tried to avoid big, protracted wars with its strongest enemies (although it was fighting the Crimean Tatars, the Turks, and suppressing domestic rebellions, like the uprising led by Stepan Razin). However, during the same period of time, it pursued a skillful foreign policy, which allowed it to annex left-bank Ukraine and Kiev, as well as Siberia all the way to the Pacific Ocean and the Chinese border, practically without going to war. It was during this time that, while avoiding big foreign conflicts and an aggressive policy, Russia managed to increase its territory more than ever in history. During 80 years of slow and steady military and political progres
s, once ruined Russia increased its potential in the economy and other spheres to a level that allowed it to fight wars for 21 years straight (an ability to wage successful wars was then viewed as a key feature of a state’s power). It inflicted a crushing defeat on one of Europe’s mightiest countries, Sweden, from which the latter could never recover.

After the death of Peter I until the Seven Years’ War, Russia was almost destroyed. It reduced its foreign policy ambitions to a minimum again, especially in the most dangerous part of the world: Europe. It seemed that Russia did not have any independent foreign policy, but was only acting as someone’s ally. But even this period of peace, and even humiliation, allowed Russia to muster up strength for the subsequent foreign policy triumphs of Catherine the Great, when all of western Russia was reunited, Turkey was routed, and “the Russian state territory almost reached its natural borders both in the South and the West,” to quote Vasily Klyuchevsky.

Catherine the Great acquired 11 out of Russia’s 50 gubernias, or governorates. In the beginning of her reign, the Russian population was no more than 20 million, and by its end, no less than 34 million (an increase of three quarters). Russia increased its state revenues by more than four times (!). It got a firm foothold in global (European, at that time) policy, and became one of Europe’s most influential powers. Count Alexander Bezborodko, an outstanding Russian statesman, encouraged young Russian diplomats to continue the tradition: “In our time not a single cannon in Europe could fire without our permission.”

After its defeat in the Crimean War in 1856 (which some historians describe as the true World War I), Russia again limited its foreign policy ambitions. For twenty years, it was “not getting angry, but was trying to concentrate,” as Chancellor Alexander Gorchakov put it. In other words, it was predominantly involved in domestic affairs, and was building up strength. But in the early 1880s Russia returned to the Balkans and the Black Sea. No nation, not even Britain, the only superpower at that time, could do anything to stop it, despite the former’s anti-Russian, and even Russophobic, policy.

To sum up, periods of relatively passive foreign policy are not necessarily negative. Some Russian politicians, who are trying to play the great power card out of conviction or populist attitudes, should stop and take stock of the country’s resources. Their recommendations may plunge Russia into disaster, which has happened in its history more than once. It went through two catastrophes in the not-so-remote 20th century.