What does Russia want: return to the system of “European concert”?

Marko Savković

03. July 2017

What does Russia want: return to the system of “European concert”?

When you type into the Internet search engine “what does Russia want”, you will find a great number of similarly titled articles among the results. Western audience’s fascination, seeing this country as something culturally “completely different” is now complete, intensified by the unpredictability of Moscow’s foreign policy intentions. To the common understanding, however, the fact that only a small number of authors speak Russian; is aware of Russian interpretation of important events in modern history, especially with regard to the Second World War; speaks from a ideologically very specific, exclusive position, or writes in extremes, taking the official Moscow as an ultimately irrational actor – hardly does any help.

In fact, Russians approach international relations in a highly opportunistic manner, no different than other countries.

Kadri Liik may be right when she writes how it is beyond question that Russia wishes to change the international order established post World War Two. After all, we have been witnessing ten years of not-so-subtle confirmation of this thesis. After the initial shock caused by discussions and conclusions of NATO summit in Bucharest 2008, Russia has intervened in Georgia, preventing its attempt to take control over Abkhazia and North Ossetia; it has broken international law and invaded a neighboring country; it intervened in Syria, determined to support its long time ally; utilized hybrid war methods to cause confusion in the dying hours of US Presidential campaign; and tried something similar in another two or three countries in Europe. (Of what exactly it tried to do in Montenegro, a general consensus has been reached by now.)

According to Wolfgang Ischinger, after 2008 Putin has entered his “mode 3.0“, moving from full cooperation in the beginning of his mandate, towards confrontation. There were several causes to this change and all are known by now: first, a general growth of confidence within Russia, pushed by the rising prices of fossil fuels; strengthening (although this is a returning theme) of the sense of Russia’s special position and the catastrophe which 1990s represented; putting an end to the expansion of Euro-Atlantic community to the post-Soviet space; recognition of the great power status (if not a superpower equal to the USA). Between and before come numerous escalations, references to international law, „red lines“ and Ukraine as the biggest among them, being the place of origin for the first East Slavic (“proto-Russian”) state.

As a consequence, a political identity was created, or confirmed, different to one in the West, which Vladislav Surkov in 2006 called “sovereign democracy”.

There are, however, numerous controversies about the ultimate goal of this change, that is, the answer to the question of what Moscow really wants. Insisting on the collapse of the so-called liberal order and some kind of global “conservative revolution” as the Russian “big game” seems a bit far off. To make it simple, here is an understanding that Russia supports such changes of governments in key countries of the West (US, UK, France, Germany) which would bring forward politicians or parties (movements) that do not care or feel attached to the values ​​of liberal democracy. This would further lead to the termination of the transatlantic link (on which the liberal order rests) and the collapse of the EU.

Such an outcome, however, would result in too many unknowns. What would happen to the global market that Russia is part of? Who guarantees that some new conservative regimes would not be hostile to Russia? With whom would then Russia discuss directly on the spheres of interest? What if the regime of sanctions – which in no way can be good for Russia’s development, disregarding opinions trying to explain the opposite – continues? In the meantime, events seem to be taking a different direction. Although the US President seems successful in undermining the liberal order, results of several elections held in Europe in 2017 seem to show how the populists have reached their zenith. If the breakdown of liberal order indeed comes, it will be caused not by Russia, nor by some other, external actor, but by internal contradictions caused by the uncritical adoption of the neoliberal economic model.

Often, researchers are returning to Putin’s claim that “the collapse of the Soviet Union is the greatest misfortune of the 20th century,” presuming his wish is to restore it.

According to another thesis, Russia strives to unite similarly-thinking states into a new kind of alliance. Often, researchers are returning to Putin’s claim that “the collapse of the Soviet Union is the greatest misfortune of the 20th century,” and they presume that he wishes to restore it. There are three of these potential alliances: one that already exists (Eurasian Economic Union) and two which are very speculative (some kind of new “Soviet” or “Pan-Slavic” alliance). As far as the first one is concerned, Russia’s interest is easier to see. These are the countries that are physically close one to another; whose economies are considerably compatible; and they do not, or are not interested in, some kind of strategic alternative. At the same time, this model is interesting for some countries in the region, first because of access to a huge single market (of nearly 200 million people). It is far from what the EU offers (in the context of a comprehensive reform framework), but if, in the context of the ambition of a country’s leadership, economic growth is first and foremost priority, then the existence of the EEU can be used as a bargaining card. When it comes to the other two speculative communities that we mentioned, we consider that the tendency towards their establishment would be devastating to Russia itself. The challenges of managing this vast and so diverse country are already immense; with the accession of other, less developed countries, might become untenable.

Would decision makers in Moscow be satisfied by returning to the some variant of the “European Concert” system that reached its zenith in decades after the Vienna Congress in 1815? Namely, then Russia was one of the states-arbitrators in international relations, which, when necessary, intervened and imposed solutions with the sole aim of maintaining the existing order.

It is worth examining another possibility, which the author recently discussed with colleagues from Poland: how decision makers in Moscow would be satisfied by returning to a variant of the “European Concert” system that reached its zenith in decades after the Vienna Congress in 1815. Namely, then, Russia was one of the states-arbitrators in international relations, which, when necessary, intervened and imposed solutions with the sole aim of maintaining the existing order. Of course, here, too, we have many doubts. First of all, what should happen first in order for the “concert” to become reality? A new conflict, greater than the one in Ukraine? The collapse of the European Union? Prolonged isolationism of the United States? Then, which region would be found in the focus of the “concert” – only Europe, the Middle East, or some other? What would be the official basis: it is difficult to take a tacit agreement as sufficient.

Everything taken into account, it seems to us that Dimitar Bechev is right when he says that Russia will continue to play the role of “spoiler” that will act opportunistically and exploit weaknesses in the strategy and approach of the West to various regions of the world. The leadership in Moscow, despite a significantly changed, or modernized strategy, continues to build on a base that is in all aspects (except, perhaps, military), inferior to that of the West. We wrote about internal tensions; legal insecurity and inequality in income; GDP stagnating; dependence, or excessive reliance on fossil fuel production (70% of GDP). On the other hand, for Russia, it would pay off to wait and let the leading countries of the West continue with the(ir) mistakes – it’s just a matter of whether it itself has that time; that is if, somewhere along the way, on the curve, a new (old) unsolvable challenge does not wait. Had Moscow not tried to interfere with French elections, perhaps they could talk about something new with Berlin and Paris. This way, more of the same seems to be in store.

This opinion was first published in Novi magazin weekly, No. 322, 29 June 2017.