Russians willing to pay a steep price for an independent foreign policy

Jan 19, 2015 12:00 AM

By Oleg Ivanov

No single state is able to pursue an independent policy for free. Independence is not something granted from above. It is obtained by a state as a result of persistence and hard work and it is expensive. The more independent a non-Western state wants to be from the Western community, the more likely it will have to pay a high price for its independence. The same goes for a country like Russia.

Today Russia is going through hard times to a great extent because of the sanctions imposed by the West. What is the purpose of the Western policy and what consequences will it have for Russia?

The Western policy has a short-term and a long-term goal. The short-term goal is to make current Russian foreign policy so costly that the government will have to change its course and make it more amenable to Western interests and aims. In this case President Vladimir Putin will stay in office.

The long-term goal is to split Russian society. On the one hand, it is aimed at breaking bonds between the government and the people, and on the other hand, to drive a wedge between the government and top Russian businessmen.

In the first case, Western leaders hope that the declining living standards of the majority of the population will cause discontent among the public at large and will make people take to the streets without waiting for the general elections of 2018. This sort of scenario will play into the hands of opposition parties and groups in Russia. 

The desire of Western leaders is either to inflict damage on Russian businesses at best or to make business as usual just impossible at worst. The rationale behind such steps is to put pressure on the Russian leadership, not making it change its policies but by replacing the leadership thus repeating the Ukrainian scenario.

Will these plots work? I tend to believe that they will not work in the way they are designed in the West for a number of reasons.

First, public support for Putin is as high as about 80 percent. President Barack Obama, with his rating of about 40 percent, can only envy his Russian counterpart's popularity. The majority of the Russian people view Western sanctions as a price must be paid for Russia's independent policy.

The sanctions are far from reaching the threshold of making the sufferings unbearable. What is more, Russian people see vividly in Ukraine what can happen to a country when protesters cross the line and resort to violence.

The destruction of central power in a medium-sized country like Ukraine led to the separation of its eastern regions. Sober-minded people in Russia are aware that even worse consequences can occur in such a large country, especially one possessing nuclear weapons. Many Russians perceive the tragedy in Ukraine as a sort of vaccination against "the rampage of democracy."   

Western sanctions pushed Russia to look for new markets and business partners. The most promising area is to the east of Russia and China ranks high in this respect. What we need is a new edition of interdependent integration projects like BRICS. BRICS can on its own - together with the Western community if it is willing - create an additional alternative pillar to beef up the economic world order.

Set up by BRICS, the New Development Bank, with capital of $100 billion, is designed as an insurance policy. It is especially urgent when Western-led institutions such as the IMF and the World Bank fail or do not always play a constructive role in the world economy. Through this, Russian businesses will receive new opportunities for development and for the whole country's economy. Success in this area will slow down the recession in Russia and deprive the opposition of a bargaining chip in their strife with the government.  

Russia is an important player in the interdependent economic system. Sanctions have a boomerang effect hurting the opposite side. Under current circumstances the question is who will suffer more and is capable of bearing the pain caused by sanctions longer.

Such a situation when both sides compete in hurting each other is detrimental to all sides involved and is absurd. It is advisable to remember the proverb "burn not your house to rid it of the mouse."     

The author is chair of the Political Science Department at the Diplomatic Academy in Moscow.

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