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30 August 2016

How Russia sees the multipolar world

Genuine multipolarity for Russia is an independence from all 

For more than ten years, Russian politicians and experts have been speaking of a coming multipolar world that will “dethrone” America’s hegemony, and provide for a safer and more just world for everyone. Particularly since the start of Russia’s Syria campaign, more and more voices find “proof” that this multipolarity is coming, often citing Russia’s activity far beyond its “near abroad” without specific referencing to Washington.

Arguably, the time of 1990s and early 2000s when Washington could implement its foreign agenda regardless of what other members of the international community thought has long passed. The question of what comes next, however, is still quite open. Clearly, what international order should look like will vary significantly from country to country, from one theory to another. What is interesting, though, is what we think the “Russian version of multipolarity” is, and that it may very well differ from what Russian politicians believe it to be. 

Theory vs. Practice

According to Sergey Lavrov, head of the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA), the principles of multipolarity were formulated by the heavyweight of Russia politics, Yevgeny Primakov. Although classical international relations theorists would questions this authorship, Lavrov’s statement is principally important to understanding the Russian vision of multipolarity. For Primakov, as for the Russian government later on, the starting point for proclaiming the beginning of the shift towards multipolarity was the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003. Since the United States’ unilateral actions did not translate into success, Primakov called for the denouncing of unilateralism as a principle. More evidence of the coming multipolarity, according to Primakov, was the rising role of the European Union, and the inevitability of a transformation of economic might of China, Russia, India and Japan into political influence. Primakov believed that a unipolar world is far more unstable and dangerous than a multipolar world, though no proof was presented then, as there is still none now.

The same year, practically repeating the argumentation of Primakov, Putin took a stand in defense of the coming multipolar world: “If we want the world to be more predictable, more prognosticated, and then safer, it has to be multipolar, and all the participants of international intercourse have to abide by certain rules, namely, the rules of international law”. Disappointed with Washington that had a pivotal role for Russia’s foreign policy planning from September 11th 2001 to the invasion of Iraq in 2003, Putin had reoriented for France and Germany which, like Russia, were not happy about President George W. Bush’s Iraq campaign. Nevertheless, Moscow was not able to build an alliance with Paris and Berlin, for several reasons, not the least of which was Ukraine’s 2004 “Orange Revolution” in Kyiv which Moscow and Europeans partners saw quite differently.  Then, in 2006, came the emerging economies of BRIC - Brazil, Russia, India and China - (BRICS since 2011) which was seen as new evidence for Russia of the coming multipolar world. At least publicly, Russia references the BRICS as the symbol of the future world order. It is also worth noting the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) and Russia’s attempts to merge the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU) with China’s Silk Road Economic Belt (OBOR).

And if we can safely take SCO out the picture right away, due to the insignificance of its institutional functioning and practical meaning, the case of BRICS circa 2016 shows how temporary and artificial that project was.

Over the course of the last ten years, BRICS has turned from a club of successful developing economies into the “club of nations with problems and those who are even worse off”. While China and India have only slowed their development facing structural problems and unsolved challenges of sustainable development, Russia and Brazil have basically failed, and are continuing to go downhill, having both political and economic animosities unresolved. Today, even the most eager BRICS-optimists conclude that due to the number of cultural and historical specifics, as well as questions of political prioritization, it was rather pointless to expect BRICS to expand anywhere beyond the level of fancy conferences and big proclamations.

What in 2003 seemed for Primakov as the inevitable future – conversion of the economic might of Russia, India and China into political influence – was only partially true, but was far from establishing a new world order. The desired has not become the real. With the same success probability today, we can name TICK (Taiwan, India, China, South Korea) the next “future” – as it is done now by yet another global trends guru.

Actually, Russia has never seriously counted on these kind of alliances and long-term commitments. The European Economic Union and Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) partners should take note – in 2015 Vladimir Putin stated: “Thank God, Russia is not part of any alliances. This is also a guarantee of our sovereignty. Any nation that is part of an alliance gives up part of its sovereignty. This does not always meet the national interests of a given country, but this is their sovereign decision.” Genuine multipolarity for Russia is an independence from all.

What is freedom?

The Russian version of multipolarity is not about the establishment of a new system of checks and balances between developing nations with a goal of creating a safer world based on the principles of international law, as Putin spoke of back in 2003. Russia, circa 2016, would prefer not even XIX century Europe as we are accustomed to hearing (remember the anti-Napoleonic coalition and Crimea War), but a world of the 1930s where beside powerful France and England, the USSR and Germany could have an almost unchecked increase in their potential, building their own “centers of power” and eventually dominating the neighbors.

Practically speaking, Russia views the system of international legal restrictions and obligations that the West «forced» on Russia in the 1990s as the direct imposition of the rules of the game by a victor to the loser, although Russia does not consider itself to be a loser. Russia’s ever persisting demand for the West to “treat Russia as an equal” and the lack of a positive response from the West, ‘forced’ Kremlin the break the rules of the games in Crimea – which Kremlin views as a just move.

A multipolar world for Russia serves as a possibility to break international law when it is “just” and fits with the real balance of power as seen from Moscow.

This approach does not dictate Russia ruin the West, destroy the U.S., and storm Brussels with the tanks. In fact, Putin, Lavrov and many other Russian high officials continuously highlight that Moscow would be happy to come back to cooperation with its “western partners” if the West accepts Russia’s position on the matter. 

A multipolar world for Russia is a tool to bring back some of the privileges and advantages of the former centuries - times before the unilateralism of law and human rights, a time of “rule of the gun” and a constant balancing just on the brink of war.

The world is no longer unipolar, but in a transitional state, with unipolarity fading. However, even if we recognize that the world of one hegemon is truly unjust and that a new order which guarantees greater engagement of developing nations is required, the solution cannot be based on the denial of the basic principles that were achieved with the collapse of the last global empire in 1991.

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