By Mia Babikyan & Alexander Stoyanov
Every great story needs its villain. Human history makes no exception – generation after generation, people look for the villains of their time to use them as a scapegoat for their own actions.
In the past ten years European history has had its unquestionable villain -Russia. The Kremlin has sent its agents abroad to poison people in the United Kingdom and Bulgaria, organize a coup d’état in Montenegro, to conspire in Serbia and work for the split off of Catalonia. It is Moscow again that backs and finances controversial political parties, usually adhering to conservative and right-wing nationalist ideas. Moscow annexed Crimea. Moscow started the Donbas war and blocked the Ukrainian EU and NATO integration. Moscow split off Abkhazia and Ossetia from Georgia and froze the state’s integration.
Putin backed Assad, his forces killed thousands of civilians in Syria and destroyed its chance for democratization. It is Putin again who backs the authoritarian marshal Khalifa Haftar and his mercenary army in Libya. Putin negotiated with the Taliban behind the US back and attempts to be a middleman in this conflict. Russian mercenaries guard gold and diamond mines across Africa, support dictators and train their armies, flooding the Dark continent with Russian arms.
Russia interfered in Venezuela, supporting the destructive regime of Nicolás Maduro. Once more, Moscow backs the North Korean regime. Moscow supports Iran, Moscow attempts to diverge Turkey from the North Atlantic Alliance and to pull the Saudi rug from under Washington’s feet. Russia corrupts the Bulgarian political system, buys off politicians; uses its mafia to influence the local mafia; Arms, finances and trains paramilitary and pseudo nationalistic formations. Interchangeably, Kosovo, Serbia and Slovakia face the same situation. All clear-cut facts and so what?
In case you have failed to understand, Russia is a global political power with direct interests in two continents and implicit ones all over the world. As any other political and military power in our history, Russia does what deems right in pursuit of these interests. In the place of Russia, countries like France, the United Kingdom and the US have acted no less definitive, rude or bold.
The problem stems not from Russia’s actions but from the collective surprise coming from the West. Their first main point of argument is: “We must not adhere to XIX century doctrines when it comes to foreign policy today”. But why not? For the last 6000 years of human history people have used the exact same interchangeable golden rules. Change is only observed in the volume and scope of the political processes. Or put simply, the New Kingdom of Egypt, the Persian Empire, the Roman Empire, the Mongol Empire and the British Empire have all built their foreign policy on the same basic principles. These principles, on the other hand, are based on human nature. Thoroughly researched by anthropologists, the most successful finding is defined by Einstein’s laconic claim that “two things are infinite: the Universe and human stupidity and I am not sure about the former.”
The second main issue of modern society is that it tries to assess politics based on moral principles. Politics, similar to marketing, is built on the lack of moral grounds and rather, on the unconditional aspiration for success. Put this way, politics is neither “good”, nor “bad”, but merely “successful” or “unsuccessful”, just like business. When discussing public debates, talking to friends over a drink or venting on social media, it is bearable to classify politics as “good” or “bad”. The bad thing is, however, that these categories crawl back and become part of the vernacular of politicians and analysts – the people who ought to raise above such malfunctioning definitions. Beyond political demagoguery which sees us as the good guys and the others are the bad guys. Relying on moral categories alters and compromises the political analysis and hinders its causal relationship. Put simply, if one analyzes Putin’s politics on the presumption that he is the “bad guy”, one could not comprehend at least half of the real reasons behind his actions.
The simple truth which many politicians and analysts fail to apprehend is that Russia is not “bad” or not, in any case, worse than any other Great power. Russia acts in all the abovementioned conflicts simply because it can. For the same reason in 2003 the US invaded Iraq. This is also the reason behind the United Kingdom’s annexation spree around the whole world during the XIX century. For the same reason Spain exploited the Americas during the Renaissance. For the same reason thousands of slaves have died in the Roman empire’s arenas. In other words, if one claims one great power is “bad”, this means all great powers are “bad” and according to philosophy, if everyone is bad, then actually no one is.
The problem with Putin’s foreign policy is that it is an ad hoc-acracy, i.e. Putin has no set long-term future plans. Putin has overall targets which he adheres to on the water principle – pressuring where the resistance is least strong. In Ukraine, Putin took Crimea and sparked the Donbas war simply because no one did anything to stop him. Examples precede from Georgia and Chechnya in 2000. In Syria, President Obama drew a red line in 2013 and at the same time called President Assad ‘our man’ in Damascus. After the chemical attacks, came oil smuggling, broken embargoes and still no reaction. In the mean time, British weapon concerns also broke the embargo and French construction companies were indicted on doing business with the Assad regime. Again, France and the United Kingdom were the ones who put efforts in lifting the arms embargo in Syria in 2013 so they can trade there. At the same time, Bulgaria acted as a hub for Syrian state assets laundry, transferred in the country via private companies owned by Assad loyalists. This is also the case in Libya where an active UN embargo is in place only to see Bulgaria’s continuous arms export.
Russia has been accused of aiding Khalifa Haftar in Libya. And this is a grounded judgment observed in mercenary deployment, currency printing, intelligence gathering missions, military and logistical support. Then what do we make of France, which also supported Khalifa Haftar by sending military and finance support? Two actors out of which only one is seen as “bad”. The Russian expansion into Libya is happening under the watch of the US and the United Kingdom who would not lift their finger about it – and France seemingly has no problem with Russian politics in this case. In Afghanistan, Russia is trying to mediate between the government and the Taliban and has even hosted a Taliban delegation received by Foreign Affairs Minister Sergey Lavrov. On the other side, the US is also in negotiations with the Taliban and has taken no diplomatic steps to counteract the Russian intervention. Saudi Arabia remains a US ally, but it also looks flirtatiously to Moscow. Recep Erdogan made a U-turn towards Asia since the US allied the Marxist PKK militias in Syria, which for years have been listed as a terrorist organization by Turkey. To Ankara, the Kurdish leftist radicals pose a major strategic threat and it is only logical that that their neutralization could come even at the cost of cooperation with Russia and Iran. The S-400 air defense system purchase and talks for SU-57 jet fighters to follow, play more of a political rather than a military role. Turkey was declined both EU accession and US understanding and accordingly sought new regional friends. Who is to blame for this turn of events? Clearly, the West which could not find the right way with Ankara. Did Russia take advantage? Of course, and it would do it again, even if it was headed by Alexey Navalny.
By the way, here comes another great myth about Russian foreign policy, namely, that it is entirely dependent on Putin and that it would be completely different in other circumstances. If you consider Putin seeing war as an endgame to his politics, you have clearly slept through your History classes. All of Kremlin’s foreign policy moves in the last 19 years have a clear historical analogue both to the USSR and Tsarist Russia. Putin has not invented any new foreign policy interests that heretofore did not exist. Rather, the methods he uses are taken out of the dusty old almanacs of the Russian diplomatic school and refreshed with a bit of modern technology and neo-nationalist rhetoric. To look for any watershed in Russian foreign policy evolution is wrong. Moscow has been having many and long lasting interests in Eurasia for at least 300 years now. All of them pursued by Peter the Great and Alexander II to Lenin, Stalin and Putin. The same interests will be protected by Putin’s heirs. The reason is that they are not specific to a particular political clique, but are part of the organic geopolitical construction on which Russian foreign policy is based.
Countering Russia’s role is a common topic in Bulgaria, Europe and NATO. But this is precisely the problem – talking with little to almost nothing being done, alongside the polarisation of “good” and “bad” obscure an adequate realpolitik assessment of the situation. Russia cannot be regarded as Europe’s eternal enemy. There are no historical, economic or even cultural grounds for this. The fact that this country is currently governed by an aggressive, authoritarian regime unselective of the means to achieve its goals, does not mean that Europe and NATO should put themselves in a position where they appear to be an eternal and permanent enemy to Russia itself. It is important to show the Russian people that the West is not hostile to them, but to the particular authoritarian clique that currently rules in Moscow. It is also important to show Putin himself that his actions will not be heard of anymore, alongside firm, measured and unambiguous resistance at every point. In 2018 alone, NATO has spent 14 times the size of Russian defense budget, yet Russia is a country that seems strong and NATO – weak, divisive and indecisive to the extent that the French president speaks of a brain death.
The GDP of Russia does not differ much from countries like Spain and Italy. The economy is largely oriented towards the export of raw materials and weapons. Lack of flexibility and nationalization of key industries promise deep stagnation in the future. The only reason this country looks strong in foreign policy is, above all, the complete lack of adequate policies from its peers. The same applies to the cumbersome policies of countries like Bulgaria and the sullen kid approach demonstrated by Erdogan. Russia will be a strong player as long as it is allowed to be, free to push forward its interests into the weakest links as long as those links are left vulnerable. The simplicity of the multipolar world in which we have lived and live is that a great power is as powerful as the rest enable it to be by inaction.
Our assessment of Russia should not be focused on its “good” or “bad” nature. Instead, it should and could be measuring it as an effective or an ineffective state. From a foreign policy standpoint, Russia is more of an effective state and from a domestic political standpoint, Russia is rather an ineffective state. In order to counteract, the effects must be monitored and isolated and the inefficiencies must be pressed and used appropriately. The big game continues on and the ones who play it from a moral standpoint will fail, but those who play to win will eventually succeed.