Russia and Rethinking Everything

“Rethink everything,” advertises the venerable Swiss bank Lombard Odier. Amidst the western diabolization of the Russian Federation, from undermining electoral campaigns to supporting the war criminal Bashar al-Assad, I had the opportunity to attend a conference in Moscow of the political elite. It was an opportunity to witness how Russia is perceiving its situation instead of the daily western diatribes against the autocratic Putin and his crushing of liberalism. It was a welcome chance to get away from Trump, Weinstein, Moore and Franken to hear a different narrative about serious politics.

The focus was on the relationship between Russia and Europe, but most of the presentations were on the larger question of Russia’s role in the world. As a former Italian minister said, “Russia is an indispensable country” for solving problems such as the Syrian crisis, Ukraine, or even the North Korean missile program.
The overall language of the Russian participants was clearly that of the Cold War – the United States being the obvious enemy with an eventual alliance between Russia and China countervailing western domination. (“Will all roads lead to Beijing in the future?” was a most perceptive question by a former European ambassador, implying a future Chinese empire similar to Rome based on infrastructure.) The usual but crucial arguments were made about the example of Kosovo as a precedent for the changing of borders in post-Helsinki Europe and the tensions surrounding Russia’s periphery – Abkhazia, South Ossetia and Crimea.
What stood out in the presentations and discussions was not only a certain nostalgia for Russian greatness and a return to the bipolarity of the Cold War (when the Soviet Union was on equal footing with the United States), but a nostalgia for geopolitics. It was assumed that Crimea was a natural part of Russia. After all, it was only Khrushchev’s gift to Ukraine in 1954 that technically altered the historical position of Crimea as part of Russia. It was assumed that the people of eastern Ukraine should have the right to at least autonomy based on their historical ties to Russia as it was assumed that Georgia had started the 2008 war and that NATO’s eastern expansion has threatened Russia’s security.

This emphasis on geopolitics, I reminded the audience, goes back to the British academic and geopolitical theorist Halford Mackinder and the beginning of the 20th century when controlling territory was pivotal. Shouldn’t geopolitics be updated to enter the 21st century? What about chronopolitics and the concept of time that is inseparable from space? Instead of talking about who controls territory in eastern Ukraine, shouldn’t we be talking about who controls the internet? Instead of talking about how many tanks are facing each other in Donbass, shouldn’t we be talking about cyberwar and perception management? Instead of engaging in international competition over pipeline routes, shouldn’t we be globally cooperating to stem the disastrous effects of carbon emissions and climate change or the threats of pandemics to global health security?  

Equally missing from the discussion was economics, although not about the price of gasoline, whose decline has obviously effected the Russian economy. What was missing was the growing importance of private companies such as Google, Apple, Facebook, Amazon or even Alibaba. Surely this can be explained by the state domination of enterprises in Russia, but it represented a lack of recognition that the role of the private sector has increased worldwide.

How to explain the nostalgia for geopolitics and the failure to consider chronopolitics or econopolitics? Following the conference, a Russian friend sent me an article that seeks to represent the Russian perspective. The author, the American Professor Keith Darden, writes: “Russia, in the twenty-five years following the end of the Cold War, developed in an era of unprecedented American power. Power need not imply threat, but it is the exception to the rule for states not to find the preponderance of power threatening. And over the course of the past twenty-five years, and especially following the NATO bombing of Yugoslavia in 1999, American power and influence have come to be perceived in Russia as a multifaceted Western threat…Russian restrictions on civil society and NGOs, on foreign aid and assistance, on the media, and on the control of strategic economic assets…have been justified as a need to internally balance against an external Western threat.” 

The difference between geopolitical competition and global cooperation finally comes down to perception and mutual confidence. Many of the conference speakers bemoaned the lack of serious dialogue between the Russian elite and the Trump administration. And, it is worth noting, these comments came from leaders of the Institute for U.S. and Canadian Studies whose founder, Georgy Arbatov, used to fascinate me with his stories of how he regularly communicated with American diplomats such as Averell Harriman, even at the height of the Cold War. More than the publicized mutual assured destruction, there was unannounced mutual dialogue.

The question, therefore, is how to restore confidence. How to initiate confidence-building-measures when the public narrative is only demonizing? The U.S. State Department has been marginalized, with many experienced experts no longer active. A new generation of American diplomats is more fluent in Arabic or Chinese than in Russian. The traditional training sites for Russian expertise, the Harriman Institute at Columbia University and the Davis Center at Harvard, have lost their luster.

The “end of history” and democracy promotion were part of the euphoric Western post-1989 moment. Within this triumphalism, little attention was given to the breakup of the Soviet Union from the Russian perspective. In the brutal world of rugby, the winners and losers go out to a pub after a game to drink together. At the end of the Cold War, the victors forgot the lessons of the end of World War I and the harshness of the Versailles Treaty and trumpeted their victory. The unipolar, hegemonic world of post-1989 was the height of American hubris and the Cold Peace that has followed should be no surprise. As Darden notes: “The primary effect of muscular liberalism may be to generate an opposing reaction.”

What is to be done to restore confidence? Maybe the Lombard Odier new branding is helpful. “Rethink everything” might mean that instead of “muscular liberalism” some form of mutual understanding of different histories might be helpful. Instead of hegemonic triumphalism, perhaps a more muted position of sharing power would lessen antagonisms. Minimally, listening and trying to empathize would be a good start. Demonizing diatribes are certainly not the way forward. 

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