Russia returns to the global arena – but for how long?

Drawing by Iorsh

Drawing by Iorsh

The recent events in Syria have seen Russia return to the global arena, re-establishing the power duopoly of the Cold War era. However, this is likely to be only a temporary role unless Russia can rescue its ailing economy, while there is a deeper need for more international players capable of global problem-solving.

Despite the gloomy prophecies of most commentators, the ceasefire in Syria is, on the whole, is being respected, and even feeble efforts toward the resumption of the political process are being revived. Everything is still standing on very shaky foundations, but the worst predictions have not come true.

If we look at what is happening in and around Syria, from the point of view of the international system as a whole, something very interesting appears. Twenty-five years of trying to build a new world order have vanished into thin air.

Once again, just like in the previous era, the real “bosses” remain Moscow and Washington, with no one else having the power or capacity to make important decisions and start to implement them.

This is sad news for international organizations, who are supposed to be ruling the world, and in particular for the EU, whose independent role in the Middle East, a neighboring region of great importance to Europe, is simply not visible.

This does not mean that the former Cold War structure of the world system is being restored. However, nonetheless, it clearly confirms that a new effective world order has not yet appeared – and the one reason for all of this is the unresolved issue of Russia’s place in the new world order.

A search for identity

The entire period since the end of the Cold War has been marked by a controversy as to what position Russia should occupy in the international arena. Although Russia is the successor state to the Soviet Union, its status in the global hierarchy cannot be compared with that which the USSR occupied.

The latter, even during its declining years, when it was experiencing acute difficulties and on the retreat, remained one of the two global pillars, a country without which it was impossible to solve any serious issues.

After 1991, Russia found itself in a strange position. It was heir to a superpower, with almost all of its formal attributes, but a state forced to work on overcoming its severe systemic decline, and which was dependent on the mercy of those who had recently been its enemies – and this without any recognized or proclaimed defeat in an armed confrontation.

Russia has tried, in various ways, to adjust to this situation. These range from actually agreeing with the fact that as a country it had no “national interests,” which would differ from those that the “civilized world” was aspiring to (the early stage, up to about 1994), up to simulating a global role through its presence (though without any leverage) in major negotiations and diplomatic formats.

A role for Russia

However, from the point of view of the outside world (mainly the Western), Russia’s desirable place was well defined – as part of a “Wider Europe.” This concept, which took shape in the early 2000s but was put into practice much earlier than that, included Russia’s presence in the European space, the core of which was the European Union (and in fact, NATO as well, even though the Europeans have always emphasized that there was a difference between these two associations).

It was understood that some of the former communist bloc countries would join these structures, while others would become only affiliated with them, through the voluntary (without membership) adoption of EU rules and regulations.

Russia was always considered as a special case. However, it was assumed that Russia would, eventually, take its, albeit significant, place within Europe, but be subject to a common chain of command in this future organization.

In other words – Russia was being offered a place in the European architecture, which at that time was not a global one. In contrast to the “common European home,” which Mikhail Gorbachev was planning to build, and in which the Soviet Union was to act as an equal partner in co-designing a new universe around it, the new European system was thought of as a regional one.

In such conditions, Moscow would reject the pursuit of its global aspirations, and within the Greater Europe, would live in subordination to rules created and developed without Russian participation.

For many reasons, Russia simply did not fit into the role assigned to it by the new world order that was supposed to appear after 1991. And one cannot say that Russia did not want this as well. Until the mid-2000s, Moscow somehow tried to settle into its proposed slot, trying to limit itself, and trying to expand this slot.

Return to the global arena

However, very soon the entire construction of the 1990s began to slump and deform under the influence of changing external circumstances. The events of 2014-2015, finally broke this construction, as far as Russia was concerned, which had existed for almost a quarter of a century.

The operation in Crimea was a response to the steady progress of Western structures toward the east, which had continued throughout the entire post-Cold War period. That is, the idea of ​​an EU/NATO-centric Europe was rejected in the strongest way possible – with the use of military force.

The campaign in Syria was the next step. Russia had announced her determination to re-enter the global arena, as a key participant in processes that do not involve it directly, but which are fundamentally important for the future balance of power.

The consequences of the Russian campaign were not only the strengthening of the regime of Bashar al-Assad, but also the reaching of an agreement with the United States on the cessation of hostilities and the resumption of the political process – and all this, despite the extremely bad relations in the rest of the spectrum, and sharp mutual recriminations.

The rebirth of Moscow as a global player is a necessary step to achieve an overall balance of power. But this is not enough. Russia must quickly do something about its economic policy – the state of the economy today will not allow the country to sustain a leading position in the world. In addition, the international system needs to expand the number of responsible nations that are able to solve problems, and not only create them.

First published in Russian in Gazeta.ru.

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