A brief review and commentary about Sergej Karaganov’s essay “A world in store”, his answer to the “Thucydides Trap” and his call forunofficial dialogues with American, Chinese and specialists from other countries for how to strengthen strategic stability. He is Dean of World Economy and International Affairs, National Research University- Higher School of Economics; Honorary Chairman of the Presidium of the Council on Foreign and Defense Policy. Karaganovs article will be published soon in ‘Russia in global affairs’ (N° 2, 2018)

By Elisabeth Hellenbroich


In a strategic essay entitled „What’s in Store“Russian strategist Sergej Karaganovin line with several articles Karaganov published in 2017, outlines some key parameters concerning Russia’s future foreign policy. It is worthwhile to study the document in the context of the just released “New National Security Doctrine 2017”by President Trump,which has aroused strong protest from the Russian as well as from the Chinese government. Russia’s government spokesman Peskovqualified the accusations stated in the document as an “Imperialist” throwback to the Cold War era of dangerous superpower rivalry. Some commentators in “Valdai newsletter”described the NSC document as a return to the “Bush doctrine” in which more explicitly than in previous documents,in line with the “America First”Credo, China and Russia as well as some rogue states like Iran and North Korea are identified as the main “adversaries”, “competitors” or “enemies” of  the U.S. For European strategic thinkers  Karaganov’s theses at this moment of international tension require serious and critical consideration.

Simultaneous collapse of global and regional orders

Karaganov begins his essay by noting that for over a decade most of the world’s international systems inherited from the past have been falling into decay and that it will take several decades to get the existing world replaced with a new one. The main challenges emerging for  Russia in the future – as Karaganov sees it- is,that it should use the strategic chance and influence in the formation of a new world order which should be coupled with the priority task to prevent a big war.

An essential strategic orientation for Russia is located in the “pivot towards Asia” which according to Karaganovmust be continued and the greater Eurasia comprehensive partnership concept should be filled with substance. While no major improvement in relations with the EU and especially with the US is in sight, mainly because of the situation inside the Western Community itself, he advises that Russia’s policies should be “flexible”and prepared for every contingency. It should be more strategic than ever in order to build a world order that would be stable, peaceful and comfortable for Russia, not so much in the 2020ies yet as in the 2030-40ies.

The simultaneous collapse of global and regional systems in the past decade implies according to Karaganov:

1. The collapse of the 500 year long dominance of Europe and the West in politics,ideology and economy.In line with this he sees that the Western proclaimed a “liberal world order” is now falling apart too, after political losses in conflicts in Afghanistan,Iraq,Libya and Syria, which has very much angered its architects.

2.In the coming decades, Karaganovemphasizes, mankind “will learn a new history of civilization, not the one that was written by Europeans. He refers to the historical model of Byzantium (third century after Christ till 15th century)asoffering a new historical model: “In it glorious Byzantium, which in the dark medieval times preserved and developed the best features in European culture and combined them with the Orient, will no longer be referred to disparagingly, but be hailed as one of the triumphs of human civilization!”

3.With the economic order of the 1990s collapsing, Karaganov sees bipolar confrontation “fading away” even though Americans and “part of the docile‘new Europeans’ try to renew divisions in Europe.Western Europe would like to avoid confrontation, but it is holding on to the Atlantic bonds whereby their security was paid for by the Americans. The US tries to distance itself from Europe while wishing at the same time to keep it dependent.  The US is trying to besiege China from the south and the east in an attempt to weaken its positions by threatening to block trade and energy supply routes in the Indian Ocean and southern seas  while (in defiance of any reasonable foreign policy logic ) pushing Russia and China into de facto alliance.”

What is new in Karaganovs observation is his emphasis on China which is “likely to become the world’s number one power in ten to fifteen years.”He refers to the term “Thucydides Trap”,a term used in debates between historians and strategists lately, which essentially means a high probability of war between a dominant power and a rising power. “Pressure from the east and the south and increased rivalry with the United States force Beijing to go westward and southwestward. This will have a dual effect. On the one hand, this will spur the emergence of new areas of development in central Eurasia and the formation of the Eurasian comprehensive partnership. But on the other hand, this will increase the opposite tendency, intensifying concerns among China’s neighbors about its growing power.”

Call for a new and more active Russian policy towards Europe

For geopolitical reasons the West is irritated about Russia, since Russia is a symbol for the loss “of US military supremacy.” While he states that one should hardly expect a thaw in bilateral relations soon, he outlines for the future of the EU four possible scenarios: 1.There is on the one side the attempt to hold on to the alliance with the departing US on worse terms than before, possibly in an effort to make up for the humiliation by slightly improving relations with Russia.The second scenario implies attempts to gain strategic independence by pursuing its own effective security policy, but this requires enormous financial and political commitments and a revision of the basic principles of the European project. This may lead to closer relation with the East in order to respond to real challenges or to a continued anti -Russian policy.(For the time being the EU is trying to keep the faltering European project together with the help of sanctions). The third scenario allows the European Union to join the Greater Eurasia partnership without breaking up with America. But this partnership will be based on other value and political principles than those in the EU.The fourth scenario would mean continuing to patch up holes, while facing the risk of getting the European project eroded deeper.  Irrespective of which scenario might prevail, Karaganov concludes that “all of the above scenarios will require Russia to pursue a new and more active policy towards Europe.”

Security challenges

“While strategic stability is declining, the risk of nuclear conflict is growing,”Karaganov states and predicts that “if pressure on Iran continues it will obtain nuclear weapons sooner or later too.Most likely be followed by Egypt and Saudi- Arabia, South Korea and most probably Japan most probably want to follow North Korea and get their own nuclear weapons.”A whole series of new types of weapons are emerging-nuclear, near nuclear and conventional.Cyber weapons are acquiring a strategic nature as they can cause damage to whole nations,genetic weapons -more exotic – too. “All this is happening at a time when the old system of nuclear arms control and related dialogues are crumbling.There has been practically no serious discussion on new threats.”The author complains that there is an alarming “lack of dialogue” and intellectual confusion among the majority of the elites.


Russia and its role in the shaping of a new International order

Karaganovreviews Russia’s engagement in foreign policy during the last years and qualifies it as history of strategic success: “Russia was basically successfulin foreign policy and used the historical waves:renationalisation, sovereignization, the negative reaction to globalization in any societies and the growing role of the military power factor. Sovereignty, the priority of security issues and traditional values become in vogue again which means that social and public prevail over individual interests.”

In respect to the Russia’s actions in Crimea, Karaganovstresses that this “stopped the expansion of the Western bloc which had been changing the balance of power to the detriment of Russia, while “Syria allowed Moscow to regain the status of top level player…”Russia has established essentially allied relations with China, which is destinedto become the main world power in the near future.” The leading part of the Russian elite has changed its geostrategic self-identity, turning from the marginal European one, prepared to pay for being allowed to get close to the “centre” into a central Eurasian one. In other words it is modernizing itself to match the present and future state of affairs inthe world. Having survived the wave of hostilities and sanctions, Russia has won morally as well.

Strategic challenges for Russia- vulnerability of economic flank

Apart from the objectively growing threat of war- Karaganovidentifies some aspects which he considers as weakness on the Russian side;the most important being the “lack of sound strategy of economic and social development and growth, or even the desire to advance it” in Russia.He warns that the relative economic weakness already now limits Russia’s partners’ desires to be friends and encourages Russia’s opponents to feud with Russia. “If the stagnation continues, any geopolitical mishap will ruin the aura of victors, exposing economic weakness(….) Russia lacks not only an attractive strategy of its own development but (which is even more important in the context of this article) a positive picture of the future world order.”In the same way one should see his observation that “Russia (just like China) is not filling in the “ideological vacuum” created by the collapse of almost all international systems. Hence he observes that Russia does not have a coherent strategy (apart from strengthening its own deterrence potential) for raising the level of international security, which is under severe stress no, if not under threat of total collapse.

“There is no way to expect lifting of most of the sanctions, especially American ones, in theforeseeable future. But the present state of relations is also counterproductive and harmful.  He advises that Russia needs “to change the system of coordinates”, look at the situation from a different angle and “give up the obsession with the West in both pro- and anti- Western form!”

Creative participation in building a new balanced world order

“The collapse of the previous international systems requires active and creative participation in building a new balanced world- order.”The cornerstone of Russia’s strategy – Karaganov suggests- should be “conscious leadership in preventing a new big war and transformation.”

This should be achieved by developing deterrence forces and doctrine and by offering,if not imposing, “joint efforts to leading countries to strengthen international strategic stability. Importantly not only through traditional arms control talks (even they too, can be useful and their previous result should be preserved) but also by offering and imposing a system of dialogues that will increase transparency and reduce the risk of accidental conflicts or their escalation. If the US resist, Russia and China should start it without it by inviting other states to join in. He also advocates having “unofficial dialogues with American,Chinese and specialists from other countries on how to strengthen strategic stability.”

Once the foundation of the future world order is built through mutual deterrence and dialogue between leading powers, they can start discussing its principles: cooperation, respect for sovereignty and territorial integrity, the freedom of political, cultural and value choice, Karaganov suggests. Russia should revive the legalist tradition – commitment to international law- which has been pushed to the side-lines by reaction to the predominant “law of the jungle” during the era of the “liberal world order.”

Yet the “most promising option of the years to come would be further pivot to the East to create a comprehensive partnership of Greater Eurasia.He stresses that “Russia and China have reiterated their readiness to join forces with other countries in order to build a comprehensive partnership in Eurasia.” Russia has supported Chinas “One Belt One Road”which can provide with further project economic foundation for the future partnership.Yet he also warns of some inherent flaws in Russian character which is the tendency to have a breakthrough and then relax.

The Eurasian partnership requires systemic work through active interaction, primarily with China,India,Japan,South Korea and EAEU, SCO, and ASEAN member countries.At the next stage, in three to four years, the new policy should be supplemented with improved relations with leading European countries and the EU, with efforts to engage them in the ambitious Eurasian project, including through the EAEU (Eurasian Economic Union) – EU dialogue, the creation of the China-Russia Europe triangle of peace and development where Russia would act as a link and a balancer.

A strong warning is made at the end by the Russian strategist that Russia must “not repeat the mistakes of the 1920s-2000s and try to strengthen relations with Europe through the Cold War era institution (OSCE and NATO).” They must be used instrumentally, wherever they can be useful (to regulate crisis, prevent conflicts) “but otherwise be pushed aside.”“It would also be highly desirable to improve relations with the United States, but this will depend on the internal political situation in America and will take time, but the degree of tension should be lowered wherever possible and Russia should seek to get out of current conflicts and stay away from new ones. It has achieved everything it possibly could in Syria and Ukraine and even greatly outdid it in the latter case.”



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