RD Interview: Professor Richard Sakwa from the University of Kent talks about Russia’s foreign policy and explains why Russia is creating alternative regional institutions such as the Eurasian Economic Union.

Russian President Vladimir Putin holds a meeting with Government members in the Kremlin, Nov. 23 2016. Photo: RIA

Despite the deteriorating state of relations between Russia and the West, experts and politicians continue to search for ways out of the crisis. Many blame Russia and President Vladimir Putin for the desire to restore the Soviet Union and pursue an authoritarian path of development. However, as other experts argue, such perceptions stem from a misunderstanding of Russia’s interests, goals and rationales.

To clarify Russia’s foreign policy goals, Russia Direct recently talked to Richard Sakwa, professor of Russian European Politics at the University of Kent on the sidelines of the annual Valdai Club meeting in Sochi, Russia.

RD: What do you think about the argument that Russian President Vladimir Putin might be pursuing a policy that aims at restoration of the Soviet Union?

Richard Sakwa: No, that’s not the case at all. That ship has sailed.

RD: But then why do we hear so much criticism in the West with regard to the Eurasian Economic Union?

R.S.: Because it is precisely the question of the Western idea of a universal space, which appeared at the end of the Cold War. The Atlantic system - the very term ‘the West’ - is a Cold War construct. And using the West, the concept of the West, you are actually reproducing the dynamic of Cold War politics, which is a bipolar battle.

After 1991, the system became unipolar and this system based on the West tries to assume leadership in the economic sphere to avoid barriers, which is good for international trade; however, politically, it also tries to homogenize the political space across the globe. Obviously, if you have the West, which then identifies itself with the international society at the top (the liberal world order, they call it), then developments like Brexit and other alternatives are precisely part of the argument to say that there is now an alternative force where this unipolar universalism no longer applies. In this light, establishment of the Russia-led Eurasian Economic Union already begins to establish a zone, which is no longer governed by American and Atlantic hegemonic dominance.

And what is happening now is that this “second world” is counter-hegemonic. It is not anti-[hegemomic]. It tries to balance the existing world. Of course, the West will be upset if Russia establishes any institution that is no longer dominated by the West. And it is not because the West is good or bad. It is just one of those elements: if you are a hegemonic power you don’t want alternative sources that are impervious to your ability to shape and control.

RD: In this case, a quite logical question arises: Does Russia have enough power to sustain this? To be able to create and maintain those counterbalancing institutions?

R.S.: No, and that’s why it is important to have China as part of it. Russia is not [powerful enough]. And that’s why the West has mismanaged it and it has driven Russia into this counter-hegemonic force, which is now China and Russia.

And as I keep saying, they should not be anti-Western, they should simply be non-Western, meaning non-antagonistic and conflictual. Otherwise it would be disastrous for Russia, disastrous for China and disastrous for everybody else. But, in other words, it should be a counter-universalism, a counter-hegemonic [force], but at the same time, it should look for new partnerships in the pluralistic world system.

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RD: Do you think this sort of new partnership between Russia and China is possible? Given the conflicting history between the USSR and China, is it a possible scenario to talk about this?

R.S.: It is not only possible – it is happening right now. The relationship between Russia and China over the last few years has never been better. We are not prisoners of history. We make our own history. The leaders like Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping have met over 15 times in the last few years. And this happens not only on the level of the leaders, but also on the ministerial level. We might not see that much Chinese investment in Russia yet because of the [investment] climate and certain barriers. But it is beginning.

Richard SakwaI actually believe that not only is it possible but I think it is essential. However, there is a deep sense of suspicion. There are point of tensions and contradictions, because the role of Russia is more of a junior partner in the economic sense but not in others. Russia has a much deeper and longer tradition of diplomacy, managing international politics. Also, do not forget that Russia is the world’s largest nuclear power, which now has a modernized army. It also has advantages of territorial space. Some Russians consider that such an enormous space as a burden but it is actually an advantage: it’s got massive resources, talented educated people, etc.

Obviously, Russia has not been able to exploit its assets effectively over the last few years in part because of the young age of the Russian state, which was established 25 years ago. So, it will take time. Unfortunately, Russia has this huge Soviet legacy of what you could call ‘statist’ forces (the gosudarstvenniki and siloviki), which are too keen to guard the state.

Therefore, Russia, having huge potential, has not unlocked it yet. But it will sooner or later.

RD: What about EU-Russia relations? Many believe that the European Union is in conceptual crisis.

R.S.: It is in conceptual crisis – there is no question about it. The EU has lost its way. On June 23, 2016 I was faced with the dilemma: on which way to vote on Brexit. And there are two arguments I could say. On the one side, the EU is a failed political project because of its failure to be consistent with its own values.

And the key value of [the EU] is peace, reconciliation and overcoming historical conflict. Since 2004, too many of those countries (Lithuania, Poland, Romania and others) have been using the EU to amplify historical grievances, which are genuine. But they amplify them rather than resolve and overcome them. In this sense, the Eastern Partnership was a very ill-conceived idea because it was beginning to contest in a geopolitical way, while the EU claims it is not a geopolitical project. Yet it was still trying to take over the space, in a normative sense, so we had normative imperialism. So, that was a good reason to vote for Brexit.

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However, as a British citizen, as a patriot, I voted to stay in.

RD: If you look at the Eurasian Economic Union, it is pretty much starting in the same way as the European Union, is there any danger of repeating the same mistakes?

R.S.: No, I don’t think so. I am actually in favor of the EEU as a common space of economic and personal development. I have spoken to many people from Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and they are very happy because they can live in Moscow, work and move freely on a solid normative legal basis. Hence, this is very good.

Of course, there are problems and tensions involving sovereignty. But I still think that the EU in this sense is great. When people can move freely backwards and forwards it creates a single community. So, I am very much in favor of the EU as long as it did not become geopolitical.

And I strongly disagree with those people who condemn the Eurasian Economic Union for an attempt to restore the Soviet Union. It is many things, including being a functional useful thing for the people, an environment for flourishing, but not an attempt to revive the USSR. As long as the EEU is non-coercive, if the states wish to join – let them join.

RD: So, this is where it went wrong in Ukraine?

R.S.: Well, that was exactly wrong because in part Russia was coercive - but so was the West. It was actually a battle for Ukraine. This is why I think that both the EU and EEU should come together under this large umbrella of a Greater Europe.