Lavrov: “Russia’s Foreign Policy in Historical Perspective”

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Lavrov: "Russia's Foreign Policy in Historical Perspective"

Original by Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov published by globalaffairs.ru; translation by J.Hawk

International relations are experiencing a very difficult period and Russia has once again found itself at the intersection of the main trends determining the direction of global development.

There is a variety of views concerning that state of affairs, including doubts in our ability to realistically assess international situation and our position in the world. We are hearing the echoes of the eternal Russian disputes between “westernizers” and the adherents of Russia’s unique path. There are those, both inside the country and abroad, who tend to believe that Russia is doomed to forever be a backward or a “catching-up” country, continuously forced to accommodate itself to game rules made up by others, and therefore deprived of its ability to promote its role in international politics. These views deserve a reply, backed up by historical examples and parallels.

The Continuity of History

It has long been acknowledged that well thought-through policies must be based on the historical perspective. Returning to history is also warranted by the long list of recent anniversaries. Last year, we have celebrated the 70th anniversary of the Great Victory, in 2014 we remembered the centennial of the outbreak of World War I. We celebrated by bicentennial of the Battle of Borodino in 2012, and the quadri-centennial of Moscow’s liberation from Polish invaders. If one stops to think about it, these anniversaries testify to Russia’s special role in European and world history.

Historical facts do not support the thesis that Russia was always on Europe’s periphery, was an outsider in European politics. In that context, I should remind that the baptism of Rus in 988 AD (and we have celebrated the 1025th anniversary of that event quite recently) facilitated a forward leap in the development of state institutions, social relations, and culture, and the transformation of Kievan Rus into a fully-fledged member of the European community. At that time, dynastic marriages were the best indicator of the state’s role in the international political system, and the fact that three daughters of Prince Yaroslav the Wise became the queens of Norway and Denmark, Hungary, and France, his sister became married to the Polish king, and grand-daughter–to the German emperor, really speaks for itself.

Numerous scientific studies indicate that the cultural and spiritual level of development of Rus was as high, if not higher, than the corresponding level of development in Western European states. Its status as part of the general European political space is also acknowledged by many prominent Western thinkers. At the same time, the Russian people had its own cultural matrix, its own spirituality, and never merged with the West. Here one has to mention the tragic and, in many respects, transformational era of the Mongol yoke. Aleksandr Pushkin wrote: “Barbarians did not dare leave the enslaved Rus in their rear areas and returned to their steppes in the East. Christian Renaissance was saved by the bloodied and dying Russia.” There is also Lev Nikolayevich Gumilyov’s alternative view that the Mongol invasion facilitated the formation of a renewed Russian ethnos, that the Great Steppe gave us an additional incentive to evolve.

Be that as it may, that period was very important in establishing the Russian state’s independent role in the Eurasian political space. Let’s recall the policies pursued by the Grand Prince Aleksandr Nevskiy who temporarily subordinated himself to the Golden Orde, which was religiously tolerant, in order to protect the Russian people’s right to their own faith and to chart their own destiny in spite of European West’s efforts to fully subordinate Russian lands and deprive them of their own identity. I am convinced that such wise, long-term policies have left a mark on our genetic memory.

Rus bent but did not break under the weight of the Mongol yoke and managed to emerge from this difficult test as a unified state which began to be viewed both in the West and the East as something of a successor to the Byzantine Empire which fell in 1453. This impressively large country which has extended around Europe’s entire eastern periphery, began to organically absorb the huge territory of the Urals and Siberia. Already then it was playing the role of a balancing factor in the European political combinations, including during the well-known 30-Years-War which ultimately yielded the Westfalian international system whose principles, particularly respect for state sovereignty, are still important today.

Here we are coming face to face with a dilemma which had made itself felt over the past several centuries. On the one hand, the rapidly developing Moscow-centered state played an more and more important role in European affairs, but on the other the European countries felt concern at the birth of the giant in the East and undertook measures to isolate it and prevent it from participating in the continent’s most important matters.

That time gave us the apparent contradiction between the traditional social contract and the desire to modernize using the most advanced practices. In actuality, an energetically evolving state cannot but try to make a leap forward relying on modern technologies, which does not mean reneging on one’s own “cultural code.” We know many examples of modernizing Eastern societies which were not accompanied by a radical departure from tradition. That is more than applicable to Russia, which at its core is one of the branches of the European civilization.

Incidentally, the demand for modernization utilizing European accomplishments was already apparent during the rule of tsar Aleksey Mikhailovich, while Peter I, with his talent and energy, gave this process transformational characteristics. Relying on forceful internal political measures, and on decisive and successful foreign policies, the first Russian emperor managed to transform Russia into one of Europe’s leading powers in two and a half decades. Ever since then, Russia had to be taken into account, not a single serious European matter could be resolved without Russia’s participation.

But not everyone was pleased by that state of affairs. There have been repeated attempts during the next several centuries to push our country back to its pre-Petrine boundaries. None of these efforts succeeded. By the mid-18th Century, Russia plays the key role in another pan-European conflict, the 7-Years-War. Russian army triumphantly entered Berlin, the capital of King Frederick II the Great, who was considered invincible, and only the death of Empress Catherine the Great and the ascension of Peter III who was sympathetic to Frederick the Great saved Prussia from a crushing defeat. This turn of events is still referred to in German history as “the miracle of the house of Brandenburg.” Russia’s size, power, and influence during the rule of Catherine the Great reached such a level that, to quote Aleksandr Bezborodko, a chancellor during that era, “not a single cannon in Europe dared fire without our permission.”

I would also like to cite the opinion of a prominent scholar of Russian history, the Permanent Secretary of the Academie Francaise, Elene Carrere d’Encausse, who stated that the Russian Empire was the greatest empire of all time when one considers the whole range of parameters: size, governability, endurance. She follows in Nikolai Berdyaev’s footsteps in arguing that Russia is destined to fulfill the great mission of connecting East and West.

In the last two and a half centuries, all attempts to unify Europe without and against Russia have invariably led to major tragedies, whose consequences could be overcome only with the decisive participation of our country. I’m referring to, in particular, the Napoleonic Wars, after which Russia acted as the savior of the international relations framework based on the concept of balance of forces and mutual respect for national interests, and preventing the complete dominance of Europe by a single country. We remember that Emperor Aleksandr I directly participated in forging the decisions of the Congress of Vienna which ensure the continent’s political evolution without serious armed conflict during the subsequent four decades.

Incidentally, Aleksandr I’s ideas could be viewed as the early version of the idea of subordinating national interests to a common cause, which mainly consisted of ensuring peace and order in Europe. As the Russian emperor said, “there can no longer be English, French, Russian, Austrian policies; there’s only one policy, a common one which ought to be pursued by nations and states for the sake of a common good.”

The Vienna system was destroyed, once again, by a wave of efforts to push Russia onto Europe’s periphery, which was France’s obsession during the rule of Napoleon III. In an effort to assemble an anti-Russian alliance, the French monarch was ready to sacrifice all his playing pieces, like an unsophisticated chess master. How did that turn out? Yes, Russia did suffer a defeat in the Crimean War of 1853-56, whose consequences were reversed thanks to focused and far-sighted policies pursued by Chancellor Aleksandr Mikhailovich Gorchakov. As far as Napoleon III is concerned, his rule ended in German captivity, and the nightmare of French-Russian rivalry would loom over Western Europe for many decades.

I’ll cite one other episode from the Crimean War. As we know, Austria’s emperor refused to help Russia, the same Russia which only a few years earlier, in 1849, came to his aid during the Hungarian uprising. The words uttered on that occasion by Austria’s Foreign Minister Felix Schwartzenberg, are well known: “We will shock Europe with our ingratitude.” All in all, one can draw the conclusion that depriving the European political mechanisms of balance launched the process which led to World War I.

I’ll add that at that time Russian diplomacy also proposed ideas which were ahead of their time. Few people today recall the Hague peace conferences of 1899 and 1907 held on the initiative of Emperor Nikolai II, which were the first attempts to come to an agreement which would allow the arms race and preparations for a destructive war to end.

World War I imposed death and boundless suffering on millions of people and caused the collapse of four empires. In that regard, it would be appropriate to note the approach of yet another anniversary, the hundred years since the October Revolution. We are faced with the urgent need to develop a balanced and objective assessment of these events, particularly at a time when, especially in the West, there is no shortage of people who want to use the theme to launch new information attacks against Russia by describing the 1917 Revolution as some kind of a barbaric coup d’etat which nearly doomed all of Europe. Or, worse, to equate the Soviet regime with the Nazi one and shift part of the blame for unleashing World War II onto it.

Without any doubt, the 1917 Revolution and the Civil War which followed were a severe tragedy for our people. But so were all other revolutions. That does not prevent, say, our French colleagues to celebrate their internal upheaval which, apart from the slogan of liberty, equality, and brotherhood, also gave us the guillotine and rivers of blood.

It is impossible to deny that the Russian revolution had one of the greatest influences on the evolution of world history, though that influence is both controversial and multi-faceted. It became an experiment in practical implementation of socialist ideas which were then very widespread in Europe, and its popular support by the masses was based on the desire felt by many to pursue social organization based on collective, communitarian principles.

The huge impact of USSR’s transformations on the establishment of the so-called welfare state or “general prosperity society” in Western Europe after World War II is obvious to serious scholars. European governments implemented unprecedented social protections due to the example set by USSR and in order to weaken the support for leftist political forces.

One could say that the 4 decades after WWII became a remarkably prosperous period for Western Europe which no longer had to make its own major decisions and which was granted a unique opportunity for peaceful development under an “umbrella” of sorts which the US-Soviet rivalry represented. European countries were able to partly fulfill the concept of convergence of capitalist and socialist models which were advanced as the preferable form of socioeconomic progress by Pitirim Sorokin and other outstanding thinkers of the 20th Century. But in the recent couple of decades we have been observing the reverse process in both the EU and the US: the disappearance of the middle class, growing inequality, dismantling of big business controls.

The USSR played an undeniable role in promoting decolonization, in affirming such international principles as the right to independent national development, their right to determine their own future.

I will not provide a detailed analysis of why Europe gradually slid toward World War II. It is clear that here, once again, European elites’ anti-Russian sentiments, their desire to pit Hitler’s military machine against USSR, once again played a fatal role. And as before, once the catastrophe was upon everyone,  it could only be overcome with our country playing the key role in determining both the European and global post-war political order.

With that in mind, the talk of a “clash of two totalitarianisms” which is being actively pushed onto the European public consciousness including at the level of school textbooks, are both baseless and immoral. USSR, with all the flaws of the system in place at the time, did not purse an objective of annihilating nations. It’s enough to remember Winston Churchill who spent his entire life opposing USSR and who played a major role in transforming the wartime alliance into a new rivalry against the USSR. He would nevertheless honestly admit: “The concept of good morals–living in accordance with one’s conscience–is the Russian way.”

Incidentally, if one is to honestly examine the situation in which many small European countries find themselves, countries which used to be members of the Warsaw Pact and now of NATO and EU, it is evident that their transformation had little to do with going from subordination to freedom, but rather with a change of masters. That’s what president Vladimir Putin expressed so eloquently in recent days, and even the representatives of these countries admit behind closed doors that they can’t make any significant decisions without the say-so of Washington and Brussels.

I should think that, on the eve of 100th anniversary of the Russian Revolution, it is important for us to realize the continuity of Russian history from which it is impossible to erase certain individual eras, and the importance of synthesizing this enormous mass of positive traditions and historical experience which our nation developed, into a point of departure into the future and asserting our country’s role as one of the leading centers of the contemporary world, the source of such values as development, security, and stability.

The post-war global order based on the rivalry between two systems naturally was far from perfect but it did help preserve world peace and avoid the worst–succumbing to the temptation to use on a mass scale weapons of mass destruction, mainly nuclear which were now at the disposal of political leaders. The myth of victory over USSR in the Cold War that took root in the West is baseless. It was our people’s desire for change, multiplied by an unfortunate set of circumstances.

Diversity of models instead of depressing homogeneity

These events can be described without any exaggeration as a tectonic shift in the international arena, as a fundamental change of the entire international system. The end of the Cold War and of the implacable ideological rivalry opened unique opportunities to reorder the European architecture along the principle of equal and indivisible security and broad cooperation without dividing lines.

There was a real chance to overcome the intra-European schism and turn the dream of a common European home into reality, something that was supported by many thinkers and politicians including France’s president Charles de Gaulle. Our country was open to that option and came up with many proposals and initiatives. It would have been entirely logical to establish new foundations for European security through strengthening the military and political components of OSCE. Vladimir Putin in his recent interview with Bild cited German politician Egon Bahr who promoted similar ideas.

Our Western partners unfortunately chose a different path, opting to expand NATO eastward and advance the frontiers of the geopolitical space under their control right up to our borders. This is the root of all systemic problems currently afflicting Russia’s relations with the US and the EU. It is noteworthy that George F. Kennan Jr. who is one of the architects of the US containment policy against the US, toward the end of his life described NATO enlargement as a tragic mistake.

The profound problem caused by the Western policy course also lies in that it was built without considering the global context. The contemporary globalizing world is characterized by unprecedented interdependence among many countries, and today the Russia-EU relationship cannot be pursued as if it were still the epicenter of global politics, as during the Cold War. One cannot ignore the powerful transformations occurring in the Asia-Pacific region, in the Middle and Far East, Africa, Latin America.

The main characteristic of the contemporary phase of international politics is the rapid pace of change in all aspects of international life. They often go off in unexpected directions. For example, the non-viability of the “end of history” thesis, which was very popular in the 1990s, is now obvious. It assumed that rapid globalization signals the ultimate victory of the liberal-capitalist model, with everyone else now facing the need to conform to it under the leadership of wise Western teachers.

In actuality, this second edition of globalization (the first occurred before World War I) led to the diffusion of global economic power and, naturally, of political influence, to the appearance of new power centers, particularly in the Asia-Pacific region. China’s leap forward is a clear example. Thanks to unprecedented rates of economic growth over three decades, it is now the world’s second largest and, according to some calculations, largest economy. It is now a stated fact that we have a multiplicity of development models, which rules out grim homogeneity within a single–Western–system of values.

There was a corresponding relative loss of influence of the so-called “historic West” which grew accustomed over the span of 5 centuries to perceive itself as the being in charge of human destiny. There is heightened competition to define 21st Century’s world order. The transition from the Cold War to the new international system turned out to be longer and more painful than it seemed 20-25 years ago.

Therefore one of the main questions of international affairs is what shape will the competition among leading powers assume. We have seen how the US and the Western block which it leads are trying to preserve their dominant positions or, to use US language, to ensure their “global leadership”, by any means necessary. They are using all manner of pressure methods, economic sanctions, and even forcible intervention. They conduct large-scale information wars. They have developed methodologies for non-constitutional regime change through “color revolutions.” But these revolutions turn out to be very destructive for the peoples experiencing them. Our country, which has experienced a period of foreign countries encouraging internal changes, is strongly in favor of evolutionary changes which should occur at a pace and in a way that is consistent with traditions and level of development of the society in question.

Western propaganda likes to accuse Russia of “revisionism,” of allegedly desiring to destroy the existing international system, as if it was Russia which bombed Yugoslavia in 1999 in violation of UN Charger and the Helsinki Document. As if it was Russia which ignored international law and invaded Iraq in 2003 and distorted UNSC Resolutions by forcibly overthrowing Gaddafi’s regime in Libya in 2011. These are not the only examples.

Accusations of “revisionism” do not stand up to criticism and are based on a simple, almost primitive, logic which posits that only Washington can “call the tune” in international politics. So we seeing the implementation of George Orwell’s maxim that “all animals are equal, but some are more equal than others” on the international arena. However, contemporary international relations are too complex to be directed from one center. The results of US interventions confirm it: Libya no longer exists as a state, Iraq is on the verge of collapse, and so on down the list.

Uniting efforts for the sake of success

Contemporary problems can be effectively addressed only through serious, honest cooperation among leading powers and their uniting for the sake of achieving shared goals. Such cooperation ought to take into account the diversity of modern world, its cultural and civilizational heterogeneity, and reflect the interests of the main components of international society.

Practical experience has shown that when these principles are adhered to, success follows. I’d like to refer to the successful resolution of the matter of Iranian nuclear program, the elimination of Syrian chemical weapons, the ceasefire in Syria, global climate agreement parameters. They point to the necessity of returning to a culture of compromise, of diplomatic efforts which may be difficult and even exhausting, but which nevertheless remains the only way of reaching mutually acceptable solutions through peaceful means.

Most other countries share our views, including our Chinese partners, BRICS, SCO, EEU, CIS, and CSTO. In other words, one might say that Russia is not fighting against anyone, only in favor of international relations based on mutual respect and equal rights, which can be the only reliable foundation for a long-term improvement in international relations.

We believe that the current urgent and real, not imagined, challenges demanding unity of effort include terrorism. ISIS, al-Nusra, and other extremists were able to for the first time establish control over large areas of Syria and Iraq, and they are trying to expand their influence to other countries and regions and to commit acts of terror around the world. Underestimating this problem can only be interpreted as criminal short-sightedness.

Russia’s president has called for the creation of a broad front to inflict a military defeat on the terrorists. Russian Aerospace Forces are making a serious contribution to this effort. We are simultaneously working to ensure collective efforts to reach a political solution to conflicts in this region which is mired in a severe crisis.

But I want to emphasize that long-term success can only be accomplished through partnership among civilizations based respectful cooperation among various cultures and religions. We believe that human solidarity ought to have a moral foundation consisting of traditional values which are common to leading world religions. I would like to draw attention to the recent joint statement by the Patriarch Kirill and Pope Francis in which they affirmed their support for the family as the natural confluence of human life and society.

Let me repeat: we are not seeking confrontation with the US, EU, or NATO. Rather the opposite–Russia is open to the idea of the broadest possible cooperation with Western partners. We continue to believe that the best way of furthering the interests of nations living on the European continent would be to form a common economic and humanitarian space extending from the Atlantic to the Pacific, so that the recently formed Eurasian Economic Union could serve as a link between Europe and ATP. We are doing everything in our power to overcome obstacles to this project, including resolving the Ukrainian crisis provoked by the Kiev coup in February 2014, within the Minsk Agreement framework.

I refer to the opinion of a politician as experienced as Henry Kissinger who, during his recent visit in Moscow, said that “Russia ought to be seen as a key element of any international balance, and not mainly as a threat to the United states…I am in favor of the possibility of dialogue in order to secure out common future and not to deepen the conflict. That demands mutual respect for vital interests and values.” That is the approach we are pursuing. We will continue to stand up for the principles of law and justice in international politics.

Thinking about Russia’s role in the world in its capacity as a great power, Russian philosopher Ivan Ilyin said that “great power status is not defined by territorial or population size, but the nation’s and government’s ability to undertake the burden of great world challenges and deal with these challenges in a creative manner. A great power is that power which, affirming its existence and interests, is contributing something a creative, foundational, lawful, to the great community of nations, the “concert” of peoples and powers.” It is difficult not to agree with that.

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  • jweorij

    it is interesting to read lavrov story about WWI and WWII which were both initiated by russia and soviet union
    russian federation is undisputidely number one terrorist country in the world and is the evil which must be erased on the face of earth
    I wish good luck for both putin and lavrov at Haag’s court

    • ZP

      Not sure if it is Germany or USA you are writing about, but I agree with you that Mr Lavrov and Mr Putin will be esteemed witnesses at some International Court in the future case “Humanity against the Cabal” (where all these Bushes, Clintons, Obamas, Camerons, Blairs, etc… will be sitting in a cage)

    • ambience

      Brainwashing works well in your country.

      • alkjidl

        russia is the country with slave mentality and with “religious mission” to save the rest of the world. nobobody has ever figured out from what they want to save the rest of the world but during the process hundreds of millions of people had been killed
        the formula to understand russia is very simple: if it is bad for the russia then it is good for the rest of the world and if it is good for the russia it is bad for the rest of the world
        there are no grey areas in case of the russia, it is just black and white
        and the cause to that is the way russians see the world
        russia is not slavic nation as all the rest of the slavic nations do not understand russian language, if there are 80% of the words similar among the other slavic language then the % of that of russian language is below 30%
        it has been studied that genetically russians has absolutely not related to ukrainens or belorussians, they are not their brothers and have nothing in common in cultural and every other aspect
        russians with slave mentality is a burden to the world and thus its social, political, economical structure has to be destroyed, like it was done with Germany and Japan, to let rest of the world live peacefully
        XX century soviet union trained almost 100% of the terrorists in the world, it means that whatever terrorist act there is, it is related to the fsb (Paris shootings, plane crashes, moscow explosions to start 2nd chechen war, etc, etc).

        • ambience

          Ukrainian propaganda is detected )) So much lies… You are a prepared soldier, a cannon-fodder.