Rethinking Russia’s approach to the global order could spur Moscow and Washington to cooperate, says a policy analyst at one of Russia’s top schools for international relations.
Speaking March 7 at Harvard’s Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies, Igor Istomin of MGIMO critiqued the dominant Western narrative about Russia: that it is a power trying to rewrite international norms to suit its particular interests.
To illustrate, Istomin referred to America’s most recent National Security Strategy, which was unveiled in December. The document presents Russia and China as revisionist powers – that is, powers trying to shape the world in a way that is antithetical to American values.
Yet Russia does not and cannot steer global rules because it does not have the economic resources. “It is important to go beyond a simple and misleading dichotomy between dominant and emerging or between revisionist and status-quo powers because Russia fits none of these categories. We need to think about Russia as a restoring or recovering power,” he said.
Discussions of the global liberal order often fail to acknowledge that the Soviet Union also contributed to the establishment of that order after World War II, he pointed out. The USSR helped found the United Nations and led in the creation of other institutions and norms (today’s non-proliferation regime and international pacts on human rights, for example) fundamental to the current international order. Russian official discourse still emphasizes the importance of international institutions. The central role for the UN and international law has been acknowledged in every Foreign Policy Concept adopted in Russia since 2000.
To explain Russia’s adherence to existing international institutions such as the UN, Istomin claimed that with the rise of new powers – such as China, India, and even the EU, which have their own agendas regarding the shape of international institutions – Russia has less ability to affect international norms, especially when compared to the position the USSR enjoyed in a bipolar world. The United States, of course, faces a similar challenge because it also must consider the interests of rising powers. Thus, new institutions will be less reflective of Russian and American interests – giving the once-dominate superpowers a reason to cooperate.
Istomin conceded that the existing discourse on Russia as a revisionist power is not completely out of touch with reality. “There are institutions in the international system which Russia does not feel comfortable with,” he said, citing NATO as an example. Now that Russia has recovered from the crises of the 1990s, it has pushed back against those institutions in which Russia’s voice was not heard.
Another reason Russia tries to shape new rules and institutions in the international system is strategic. “Russia understands that the rising powers will continue to rise, and it thus tries to accommodate the interests of other rising powers in order to secure a better bargaining position until they get stronger,” Istomin said. The BRICS – a forum of countries with very diverse agendas – exemplify Moscow’s accommodation. “Russia embraced the idea proposed by the rising powers about the reform of international financial institutions despite it not being Russia’s priority.”
Istomin concluded that the notion Russia is a recovering power is crucial for reassessing relations between Moscow and Washington. The U.S. is not as strong as it was in the last decade. Nowadays, both Russia and the U.S. try to accommodate rising powers while protecting their own interests, but they do this in a competitive context. Tensions between Russia and the U.S. encourage Russia to cooperate more closely with the emerging powers. Istomin argued that Russia and the U.S. stand to gain by cooperating, as together they can increase their bargaining position with rising powers.
Nini Arshakuni is a master’s student at the Davis Center.