Whenever Moscow falls out with the states of Europe, as at present over the brutal breach of human rights in respect of leading oppositionist Naval’ny, those pushing for isolationism rear their heads to say we told you so. Why should we hang out with these people?
Yesterday Nezavisimaya gazeta published an article by Veniamin Popov, an Arabist who represented Russia at various times in Yemen, Libya and Tunisia. He sees the failure of post-Soviet Russia to join the West as inevitable. But he is also no proponent of the use of military power to solve tricky ethnic disputes. So Popov and others like him were not exactly enthusiastic about President Putin’s military intervention in September 2015 to underwrite the Syrian régime with brute force any more than the military savaged in Afghanistan.
But the Russian “camel corps”, as they would be known in London, does see Russia as fundamentally a Eurasian Power and would prefer that it focus on the regional politics of the East, including the Islamic world, rather than hankering after a false identification with Europe. This was the approach of Slavophiles in the late 19th Century when the curse of Russian backwardness was almost, at least tacitly, made a virtue.
In this respect Danielevsky’s Rossiya i Evropa was a classic. An added twist is the absorption of Mackinder’s geopolitical philosophy, with Russia as the centre of the world island. No less a person than the Georgian, Stalin, explicitly echoed Eurasian sentiments when meeting Japanese Foreign Minister Matsuoka when the latter arrived to sign a Neutrality Pact with the Soviet Union in April 1941. But this was a blatant piece of opportunism. Stalin believed that he who controls Europe controls the world.
And whenever negotiations went wrong with NATO, Gorbachev and Yeltsin would talk about the Asian option, as has Putin more recently. Yet whenever they, and Putin only in the last few years, sat down with the Japanese to try to sort out a peace treaty, they behaved like imperial Europeans for whom it was beneath their dignity to concede any territory, however insignificant (the so-called lesser Kurile islands – a land of earthquakes and volcanoes as Khrushchev called them) for reasons of dignity. And now they face Turkey, partner or rival? Turkey wants the Crimea back as it was a part of the Ottoman empire (but then so was Greece and much else in the Balkans). It has already muscled in between warring Armenia and Azerbaidzhan and has further places to go and people to see.
Joining with the East is thus not some easy isolationist option that relieves Russia of doing deals and making concessions, sacrifices even; it too requires flexibility, no less so than in dealing with the West. It is no use seeing the Iranians as devilishly cunning but then playing Colonel Blimp because Russian prestige might be at stake. This part of the world operates international relations like a market, more explicitly so than do the Europeans (even the Germans). It is not a cost free opportunity. And by raising it only when things go wrong with Europe scarcely endears Russia to its presumptive partners.
Евразийская сущность российской цивилизации
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