By Timofei Bordachev, Valdai Club
“In the end, peace can be achieved only by hegemony or by balance of power.”
Henry A. Kissinger
On March 1, President of Russia Vladimir Putin made his annual Address to the Federal Assembly. It is certain to go down in history, and not only because of its election context, although it combines a report to the voters and tasks for the future, especially on the issues of the country’s domestic development – new technologies, saving of human capital, development of the Russian Far East, or consolidation of multilateral institutions of cooperation in Eurasia. However, there is little doubt that the Address will primarily be remembered for its military political or even military strategic part. Balance has become a key word in this respect. Apart from the hegemony of one state, balance of power is the only way of achieving more or less durable peace.
The President’s Address on foreign and defense policy met both the reality of modern international life and the requirements that this reality sets to states. And if some of its points may have seemed frightening to susceptible observers, they are as frightening as the world we live in. It is clear that this world is not for the weak and indecisive, but it is much more dynamic and amenable for the collective efforts of states in preventing a global conflict.
The present time probably stands out the most for the most significant change in the context since the end of World War II. Although the disintegration of the USSR in the early 1990s caused a serious imbalance in the international system, it did not lead to fundamental changes in its character and basic processes. The liberal world order that claimed to be universal proved to be a short period of relatively complete dominance by a group of countries. The United States and, to a lesser extent, its European allies enjoyed an almost complete freedom of action and opportunity to maximize their advantages. As a result, domestic political priorities and circumstances were arbitrarily extrapolated to foreign policy. In effect, international security became dependent on the domestic political dynamics of the most powerful players. It was to prevent this that the world’s states have been building international institutions and the system of international law for almost 100 years now. In the 19th century wars were waged out of diplomatic considerations, in the 20th century for resources and dominance and in the early 21st century for resolving domestic problems of those that unleashed those wars. The most vivid examples are the Western interventions in Yugoslavia, Iraq, Libya and the unfulfilled intervention in Syria. Indicatively, if non-Western powers – China, Russia and India – resorted to force, they used it in a non-linear way and strictly for achieving foreign policy ends.
At the same time, the finale of the Western liberal global order did not lead to a new, more just arrangement. On the contrary, the world has entered into an apparently lengthy diplomatic and hybrid-type military confrontation. Whether we like it or not, the period of relative uncertainty, which emerged against the backdrop of a relative weakening of the West’s omnipotence, is coming to a close. It is being replaced with a new struggle for global domination.
The initiative in this struggle belongs to the United States, which is so far displaying the biggest resolve in destroying the relatively beneficial-for-all rules of the game that Washington established after the end of the Cold War. According to all estimates, an unprecedented arms race is being initiated across the board. Incidentally, judging by the latest weapons presented on March 1, the Russian leaders are not going to become involved in this race. The Russian leaders took into account the experience of the USSR, which overtaxed itself in the attempt to win a symmetrical competition. Most of our leaders saw the collapse of the Russian superpower with their own eyes. The suggested responses will be more asymmetrical and aimed at neutralizing the threat rather than creating it. The United States is adopting conceptual documents that may have seemed irresponsible and silly in the past but now can only be perceived as a statement of real intent. Obviously, the Russian President’s resolve was also provoked by the recent US programmatic documents on nuclear strategy that deem the first use of nuclear arms possible.
At the same time, this struggle is taking place now in a completely different context. China has joined it on a global level. Although Beijing does not proclaim global domination to be its goal as the United States is doing, according to all estimates, it will be compelled to seek domination in certain respects. The enormous scope of the Chinese economy and the need to supply it with resources, as well as China’s size and the development level of the Chinese state will make it build a system of friendly vertical relations around itself. India does not have global ambitions but it is seeking respect for its interests in the periphery. This compels Delhi to actively build geostrategic combinations that are making Beijing nervous. Russia cannot afford to make a choice in favor of one of the partners. India’s resources and capabilities are limited, but it has a big role to play with regard to whether Eurasia becomes a region of cooperation or a venue of geostrategic struggle between India and China.
These two great powers’ participation in world politics and good Russian-Chinese relations (as distinct from the past) are factors changing the international context in fundamental ways and s charging the nuclear superpower Russia with new responsibilities. It is no accident that in his Address, the Russian President said that the new arms systems are not an end in itself and are not even aimed at conquering the summits of global politics, as is the case with the US and increasingly China. By virtue of its own military capabilities Russia needs domination beyond its immediate periphery even to a lesser extent than India. Moscow believes that new, advanced arms systems are necessary to establish and consolidate the global balance of power. In modern conditions, only such a balance – at global and regional levels – can guarantee that humankind will not slide into a global conflict.
It is essential to understand that Russia that is militarily weak and lacking in confidence is a potential ally either of China or the United States. But Russia is not an independent player – it is a balancer. They will struggle for it and the signs of such a struggle are already visible. Russia’s accession to one of the poles will inevitably compel other major countries to make their choice as well. This polarization of the global military political system will become a major step towards the end of the human race. The “strategic frivolity” that has already become a habit will be augmented with a structure of the international system that is practically a replica of Europe in 1914. When all pieces take their places on the board in the order that is optimal for a conflict, it will only remain to “announce mobilization,” the moment when one of the camps will go beyond the point of no return.
In this context, Vladimir Putin’s March 1 Address to the Federal Assembly closed the issue of even a theoretical Russian-Chinese military union. Possession of such modern weapons removes from the agenda the question of whether Russia needs mighty patrons to ensure its security. Moscow needs friends, strategic partners and even allies that could rely on it in difficult times. Clearly, it does not need patrons. This means it can go on being the only restraint for the US and China, which would otherwise sink into confrontation in the name of global dominance.