Isolationism, a broad Eurasian partnership, and a left tinge
April 20, 2023
  • Mikhail Suslov
    Associate professor, University of Copenhagen 
Mikhail Suslov takes us through the new Russian Foreign Policy Concept, its sources and component parts, and explains what it tells us about the Kremlin’s policy thinkers and their ideological journey.
Alexei Drobinin, a functionary (born in 1974) in the Russian diplomatic corps, made a significant contribution to the new Foreign Policy Concept. Source: VK
Work on the new Russian Foreign Policy Concept was started in 2021, while its broad features were discussed and approved at a session of the Security Council in January 2022, before the invasion of Ukraine. It was finally published on March 31, 2023.

The man who announced the Concept in December 2022 and who was presumably responsible for its ideological content is Alexei Drobinin, a relatively young functionary (born in 1974) in the Russian diplomatic corps. In 2021, he assumed a leading position in the strategically important international planning department at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and hitherto had been keeping a low profile. As side products of his work on the Concept, he authored two analytical papers, one for the journal Mezhdunarodnaya zhizn’ (2022) and another for Rossiia v global’nom politike/Russia in Global Affairs (2023), which provide valuable insight into the ideological atmosphere at the ministry and in the Russian political mainstream in general.

The first paper, entitled “Lessons of History and Visions of the Future,” features a rather distinct list of literature. It refers first of all to a group of the foreign policy analysts from pro-government think tanks, such as the Valdai Club, Council for Foreign and Defense Policy (SVOP) and the journal Russia in Foreign Affairs, namely Sergei Karaganov (two times), Dmitri Trenin, Timofei Bordachev and Fyodor Lukyanov. Natalya Narochnitskaya, a member of the Izborsky Club, is mentioned twice. Finally, there is a group of thinkers from the past: the monarchist emigree Ivan Solonevich, the theorist of isolationist geopolitics Vadim Tsymbursky and the idiosyncratic anti-Western philosopher Alexander Zinoviev. The second article, “Vision of a Multipolar World” (2023), again has, as its sources of inspiration, Karaganov, Lukyanov and Tsymbursky, as well as 19th-century conservative Nikolai Danilevsky, the usual suspect Ivan Ilyin, and more specific studies on the civilizational approach in international relations by Alexander Neklessa and Vitaly Naumkin.

With this ideological panopticon in mind, we can now approach the final product, whose central ideological component is the interpretation of Russia as a “distinctive (samobytnaia) state-civilization” (article 4). In the same breath, the article calls Russia a “vast Eurasian and Euro-Pacific power,” which is an almost verbatim rendering of how Drobinin identifies Russia is his paper: “a distinctive (samobytnaia) civilization, the largest Eurasian and Euro-Pacific power.” None of these three elements – civilization, Eurasia, Euro-Pacific – is new for the mental horizon of Putin’s Russia, though their combination in a strategic document is unusual. The Concept, indeed, lays out the ideology of Putinism in the most unambiguous way.

Russia as a civilization

The idea of Russia as a separate civilization stems from post-Soviet academic discussions seeking to supplant the Marxist teleological and universalistic vision of history with the idea of unique historical trajectories for each “civilization.” This approach was inspired by Samuel Huntington’s famous “clash of civilizations” concept and the dusted-off magnum opus Russia and Europe (1869) by Nikolai Danilevsky. By the time Putin was toying with the idea of Russia as a “state-civilization” in his article of 2012, it had crystallized as a powerful criticism of Western-led globalization and an assertion that each “civilization” has its unique grid of basic values.

Drobinin’s paper of 2023 clarifies three aspects of the civilizational qualities of Russian identity and statehood, as they are understood today: 1) absolute sovereignty; 2) self-sufficiency in economic and geographic terms; and 3) the existence of “our own philosophy of development.” He later on elaborates that a civilization always has a core and “peripheries.”

In this context, the term “near abroad” to the Concept (article 49) makes a conspicuous return: “the CIS and other neighboring countries, linked with Russia by centuries of common statehood, profound interdependency in various spheres, shared language and proximate cultures” are, according to this vision, part of the “cultural-civilizational unity” of the “Russian world,” and cannot be fully sovereign. The “near abroad” tops the list of strategic priorities in the Concept, followed by the Arctic and Eurasia (articles 50-53), underpinning an introverted geopolitical optic that is centered on Russia as a “state-civilization,” which is surrounded by concentric circles: the “Russian world,” the Eurasian continent and the belt of friendly and allied Asian “civilizations.”

While Russia’s ruler and his clique keep on pontificating about their openness to the world and integration, it is hard not to feel a tinge of paradoxical isolationism in this program: a high level of integration with territorially adjacent and culturally compatible regions is a means to an ultimate end of civilizational autonomy. Each “civilization” looks like an abridged version of the entire humanity, be it the “Russian world” or the “Chinese world.” They can befriend each other, but the most fundamental principles of this proposed “more stable and more just, multipolar world order” are self-sufficiency and noninterference.

Russia as a Eurasian Euro-Pacific power

Another central idea of the Concept is Russia’s Eurasian identity, which has an impressive intellectual pedigree and level of institutionalization in Putin’s Russia (for example, the Eurasian Economic Union launched in 2015). Compared with the previous Concept from 2016, in which Eurasia is mentioned twice, the new document aligns Russian foreign policy with Eurasia in the most direct way, referring to this geopolitical construct 24 (!) times.

Even more consequential is the introduction of the term “Euro-Pacific power,” which, again, is not something completely new, having been discussed at the Valdai Club and affiliated think tanks since at least 2014. The “Euro-Pacific” identity of Russia implies its continental character as a “large space” (Groβraum). Ideas about a qualitatively different nature of “large spaces,” originating in the works of Carl Schmitt and Karl Haushofer and mediated by Alexander Dugin and his disciples, have trickled down to the political mainstream and to the publications of some key propagandists (e.g. Dmitri Kulikov).
The arguments behind Eurasianism and the concept of a Euro-Pacific continental space aim to prove that Russia’s resources and geopolitical genetic code allow it to maintain sovereignty on the civilizational level.”
Another aspect, elucidated in the past few years by the SVOP and Valdai experts, is the pressing need to discontinue Russia’s political, economic, international and primarily ideational dependency on the “West.” The West is on the losing side of history – its 500-year history of world dominance is over, while the new giants like China, India and the Arab world are coming to the fore. From this standpoint, Russia’s proposal of a “large Eurasian partnership” (article 39.7) represents an opportunity for Russia to free ride into the bright future.

With a left tinge

While the originality of the Concept is dubious, it decisively incorporates the most recent ideological development of the past year: the left-colored rhetoric of anti-colonialism, i.e. a claim for a more just world order. Western neo-colonialism in Drobinin’s papers is defined as an instrument for moving resources from the developing world to the “golden billion.” Russia’s recent actions, from this viewpoint, aim to “restore historical justice,” not only in the sense of taking from Ukraine what the leadership deems to be belonging to Russia, but also in the sense of destroying unfair Western hegemony. Indeed, the Concept stands out for its extensive use of the term “justice” (10 times) versus the Concept from 2016 (six times), 2013 (four) and 2008 (three).

The importance of justice for the recent construction of ideology in Russia recalls the well-known harangue by the 19th-century Populist philosopher Nikolai Mikhailovsky, who admired the Russian term “pravda” (justice) as merging both societal (fairness) and cognitive (truthfulness) meanings. In this context, justice works to substantiate two types of claims for a “more just world order:” first, the envisioned multipolarity substantiates rights for fair access of all countries, both the “West” and the “rest,” to the benefits of the global economy (article 19.7); second, multipolarity as used in the Concept mirrors a more correct political philosophy according to which each “civilization” has its own truth, values and strategic orientations. Justice, thus, is protection of these “civilizations” from Western attempts to establish a universal standard and “impose destructive neoliberal ideological orientations contradictory to traditional spiritual-moral values” (article 8; also see article 44).
The idea of justice provides a shortcut into the logic of the Concept, connecting the isolationist vision of Russia as a Eurasian, Euro-Pacific state-civilization with Russia’s messianic role in the world.
Members of the Izborsky Club, a conservative think tank focused on Russia's foreign and domestic policy. Source: VK
Article 5 identifies this role as a “unique, historically formed mission of maintaining the global balance of power and shaping a multipolar international system.” It says that Russia fulfills that mission by remaining itself, exemplifying the ideal of a self-sufficient civilization. Against this backdrop, the article 13 legitimizes the war in Ukraine as a response to the hybrid war “unleashed by the US and its satellites” to weaken Russia, as Russia’s independence has become the major obstacle for “Western hegemony.”

Russophobia in the West and the war in Ukraine

Elsewhere, Drobinin makes the unequivocal argument that the “Western elite” is deeply Russophobic. Drobinin can also be “credited” for introducing the term “US and other Anglo-Saxon states” into the Concept. Previously, it was mostly used by fringe patriotic authors of the Izborsky Club ilk, but now it designates the “main inspirer, organizer and executor of the aggressive anti-Russia policy of the collective West” (article 62).

Drobinin’s 2022 paper is grounded on the metaphor of “tectonic shifts,” which has gained much currency among the Russian political leadership in the past few years. It implies that the changes in the world, such as the rise of the “Third World” and the decline of the “West,” are “revolutionary” (article 7), profound and unstoppable, fully beyond human control. This interpretation means that, first, Ukraine is inconsequential, with the gist of the conflict between the West, which is clinging to the last vestiges of its hegemony and trying to “hold back the natural course of history” (article 8), and the “rest,” self-sacrificially spearheaded by Russia. Second, it means that the war was necessary, unavoidable and defensive.

The Concept shows the evolution of the two decades of ideological debate under Putin with improved coherence and unprecedented frankness. At the same time, it is a work-in-progress, showing some inconsistencies and ideological blocks. For example, the isolationist thrust in the vision of autonomous civilizations does not fit well with the idea of a Large Eurasian partnership. What we can tease out from the Concept is a particular frame for understanding of the war in Ukraine as a collision of “tectonic plates.” For one, it makes the Russian leadership less panicky about the outcome of the invasion, as a military defeat will be seen as just a lost battle in the ongoing wider war for a new world order. In addition, the political mainstream has cast in stone a vision of the West as an eternal, existential threat to Russia.
Share this article
Read More
You consent to processing your personal data and accept our privacy policy