Author: Emanuel Pietrobon – 31/07/2019
Russia has a long history of alliances-turned-enemies and partners-turned-rivalries, but it acts worldwide as if it did not learn anything from history. It is well-known that a relevant part of political and cultural establishment aims at making Russia a Western-modelled country since the times of Peter the Great, but it is equally true that the West never considered Russia as part of European civilization but as an Asian autocracy-based power to fight through a containment policy.
Russia should start playing in international affairs less idealistically and more pragmatically, because history teaches that the world’s great powers have always seen Moscow suspiciously due to its huge dimensions, its influence over neighbouring countries, and its foreign agenda.
Indeed, it was not sir Halford Mackinder to theorize the first anti-Russian geopolitical views in the earlier 20th century, but it was Napoleon in the aftermath of the French revolution. Russia’s contribution to defeat the man who changed the Old Continent forever was apparently recognized during the Congress of Vienna. The country joined the Quadruple Alliance, later become the Quintuple with the entrance of France, but in a few years its supposed allies started reconsidering their relationship with Russia and worked together for its withdrawal from Eastern Europe.
Russia found itself isolated altogether in 1853, when a dispute with France involving the protection of Christian minorities in the Ottoman-ruled Holy Land gave rise to one of the major conflicts of the century: the Crimean War. A powerful international coalition was formed by British, French, Ottomans and Sardinians to stop Russia from gaining further influence over the Balkans and the Holy Land.
On the background of the growing hostility showed by European powers, even the once-Russian-friendly United States started looking at Russia suspiciously, despite Moscow’s help during the American revolution, the profitable business set up in navy industry, and the Alaska affair.
European powers had a point in considering Russia a threat for the geopolitical order established after Napoleon’s fall, but the US had not.
Before the World War II started, the Soviet Union failed to convince Great Britain and France of the danger represented by the Nazi Germany and eventually signed the notorious Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact with the hope to be excluded from the coming conflict through a German-friendly policy. Once again Russia found itself wrong: on 1941 Adolf Hitler launched the Barbarossa Operation, the largest invasion force-based military operation of world history, to conquer Russia’s heart.
Today, Russia is living again a new version of such centuries-long history characterized by untrustworthy allies and partners – the case of the NATO enlargement to East is the most emblematic.
The issue is that the country has never been so encircled by rivalries and competitors and economically weak, this is why the political establishment should start acting with urgency to fight against the ongoing resizing.
The first step is to recognize a terrible truth: the European Union will never be a reliable partner. It is unlikely that the US is set to let its most important satellite to be Russian-friendly. The so-called French-German axis, which in words aspires to be more autonomous from Washington, has no interest in ending the Ukraine-related sanctions regime and proves it daily. Right-wing populist forces all over the EU, except in Poland, are theoretically Russian-friendly but practically American-backed as shown by their agendas.
Nor Orban’s Hungary or Conte’s Italy did anything to end the sanctions regime as promised during the respective election campaigns, despite the fact that only a single vote is needed to break the unanimity mechanism.
It is trustworthy to underline that the EU decided to worsen the relations with the most important non-EU trade partner because it considered the removal of Ukraine from Russia’s sphere of influence more important than energy security and regional peace.
The only way to deal with the neo-containment is to make the EU face its worst nightmare: to put in danger its energy security, which is widely reliant on Russian natural resources. It would be a win-win strategy with zero losses and it is easy to understand why: the EU is reliant on Russian natural resources and such retaliation would push Bruxelles’ establishment to find a solution immediately to avoid a gas crisis, without awaiting orders from Washington.
Russia’s low profile and attempts to restore dialogue are seen as an evidence of weakness by the EU and the US, and they are right to think so. It was realpolitik that made and shaped world history, not idealpolitik. A similar issue is now emerging with China, that is taking advantage of Russia’s troubles to weaken further its economy and extend over its traditional sphere of influences.
The risks of a trust-based foreign policy are clear and explain the position of advantage from which both the West and China are defending their interests and resizing Russia’s power. Only a realistic approach can save Moscow from the likely-coming Soviet-style implosion.
Emanuel Pietrobon, Higher School of Economics, Saint Petersburg, Russia