Now that re-admittance to the G8 has become an unlikely prospect, Russian experts are debating possible strategies of how Russia can live without the West, including a greater focus on a technological alliance with the BRICS.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel speaks with U.S. President Barack Obama at Schloss Elmau hotel near Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Germany, during the G-7 summit. Photo: AP

After the two-day G7 Summit in the Bavarian Alps spotlighted the growing confrontation between Russia and the West, Russian experts from the Council on Foreign and Defense Policy (CFDP) came together in Higher School of Economics (HSE)  to discuss Russia’s future strategy of how to deal with economic and international challenges without the West.

The name of the roundtable that brought together the pundits is indicative of the scope of the challenge facing Russia: “Our World Without the West? How to Save Russia’s Development Potential During a Time of Geopolitical Confrontation.”

Today, the Ukrainian crisis has turned public discussion in Russia into a sort of a predictable and insipid talk show, an attempt to express oneself and politicize the debate, says Fyodor Lukyanov, the moderator of the roundtable and head of the CFDP.

That’s the main reason why Russian experts find it necessary to come up with political and economic alternatives for Russia’s development without the West. While some experts propose more extensive cooperation with the BRICS and, particularly, China, others pin their hopes on the expanded format of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO).

Could the BRICS be an alternative?

Increasing technological cooperation with the BRICS countries and the creation of a sort of multilateral technological alliance with them should be Russia’s key strategy under the Western sanctions and confrontation with Europe and the U.S., according to some speakers.

Andrei Ionin, the chief expert at GLONASS, Russia’s space-based satellite navigation system, argues that import substitution and the pivot to China — two strategies touted by the Kremlin — are hardly likely to be effective, because of Russia’s technological drawbacks and China’s controversial record. In short, China can’t be seen as a reliable partner to make a technological leap forward.

“We do have national interests, but do not have technologies,” said Ionin, pointing to Russia’s minuscule share of the world’s population (2 percent) and global GDP (3 percent) in comparison with the significant share possessed by the BRICS (40 and 30 percent, respectively).

According to him, this is one of the major requirements for technological prosperity. Developing technologies together and creating a non-political technological alliance, not directed against the West, should be the key component of the BRICS, which could help to resolve the problem of the brain drain.

In contrast, Andrei Klepach, the chief economist at Russia’s state bank Vnesheconombank, warns against being overly optimistic about a BRICS technological alliance. He argues that even though Russia has technological potential, it won’t be able to be technologically independent if it joins together with the BRICS.

He added that Russia’s fundamental sciences and technologies are underfunded and brain drain is increasing.  However, “people are leaving [the country] because nobody offers interesting and challenging tasks,” not only because of the lack of funding, Klepach clarified.

Likewise, Evgeny Kuznetsov, Deputy General Director of Russian Venture Company (RVC), calls for being more skeptical and realistic about the BRICS’ technological potential.

So far, we are not subjects of this process [the world’s technological transformation], but objects. BRICS is a tabula rasa,” he said, pointing to a great deal of institutional problems in the BRICS countries. According to him, they do not understand how to create global technological markets, they can only reproduce the existing ones.

For Russia, existence without the West might be an elusive dream

Vitaly Kurennoy, a professor and head of the Higher School of Economics' School of Cultural Studies, argues that Russia should “stop concocting dreams and return to reality.”

“Keeping up with America and outpacing them is a good goal, but we have to understand that we are on the periphery and will remain there,” he said. “The country hasn’t been shaken despite sanctions. This means that the integration level is low. People have learned to live in difficult conditions and today it is becoming relevant.”

No sanctions will impact the country because Russia already lives in a different universe, with all the talk about space and new technologies foreign and inconsequential to most Russians, Kurennoy concluded.

Meanwhile, a number of experts and economists who participated in the roundtable warned against creating phantoms and an alternative reality without the West. They believe that overreliance on the BRICS and, particularly, China, is reckless in the long-term.

In search of political alliances, the Kremlin is forgetting about the fact the world is driven by economic goals. Following such logic, China is not turning its back on the West and, instead, it keeps attracting Western investment and doesn’t isolate itself like Russia. In this regard, the West could be a greater priority to Beijing than the BRICS.

At the same time, Oleg Barabanov, a professor at Moscow State Institute of International Relations (MGIMO-University), says that Russia will have to adjust to the new reality without the West. According to him, it is inevitable. He argues that BRICS has a limited potential as an alternative to the West, because there might be a political or ideological split between the BRICS countries: the authoritarian ones (Russia and China) and the democratic ones (India).

Barabanov sees India as a Trojan horse in the BRICS, a country that could promote a democratic agenda among the other BRICS nations, and, thus, increase its geopolitical heft and potential amidst the Russia-West confrontation. That’s why the expanded version of the SCO — if India, Pakistan and Iran join the organization — could be more geopolitically robust as a foundation for the idea of a united Eurasia.      

Russia needs to diversify its foreign policy orientations

Many Western experts question Russia’s attempt to find its place in the world without collaborating with the West. 

“Opening to the European market would have brought technology, healthy competition, and a market for high-value innovative products,” said Jack Goldstone, Woodrow Wilson Center visiting scholar and professor at George Mason University, in an e-mail to Russia Direct. “Opening to China and Central Asia simply does not do that. While some technology can come in from China, it is not the same as the American and European market as a source of high-tech innovation.”

According to Goldstone, Russia can get from China “another customer for its energy and primary resources,” but this customer “will probably bargain harder than the West did. So a shift to the East is very unlikely to help Russia move its economy forward.”

Richard Sakwa, professor of Russian and European Politics at the University of Kent, argues that, “It is both healthy and natural for Russia to seek to diversify its foreign policy orientations” at a time when the international system is becoming genuinely pluralistic. However, Sakwa warns Moscow against “putting all of its eggs into one basket.”

“Engagement with the new governance structures and the rising states of the East while promoting equilateral Eurasian integration, should be seen as complementary to its engagement with Europe and the Atlantic community as a whole,” he said. “Although the rhetoric of mutual contempt and abuse is currently at an extremely high level, it should be remembered that ultimately there are no irreconcilable contradictions with the Western powers. The EU and the U.S. are certainly not Russia’s enemies, just as Russia is not their enemy.”

Thus engagement with the East should not be at the expense of keeping the door open for reconciliation with what used to be called the West,” he added. “It may take years, but it is essential for Russia to maintain its traditional sense of balance in world affairs.”

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