Gone with the virus. How the pandemic makes Russian strategy evanescent
The COVID-19 pandemic has resulted in three major blows to the Kremlin’s international strategy, thus making it adjust to much less favourable circumstances than when Vladimir Putin annexed Crimea and disrupted relations with the West.
First, the crisis has shown the dysfunctional inefficiency of the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU). The most illustrative example is the current escalation of Moscow’s tensions with Minsk, exacerbated by the two governments’ dissimilar policies towards the coronavirus which was projected onto the symbolic competition over the Victory Day parade on May 9th, which was cancelled by Putin but held by Lukashenka in spite of the risks. Mainstream television channels in Russia and Belarus “have engaged in a war of words, accusing each other of failing to deal with the pandemic and spreading disinformation”. According to information leaked to the media, the Kremlin is allegedly looking for contacts in Belarus who might run the country after Lukashenka. Against this background, some experts deem that the Belarus officialdom seems to be more interested in developing economic projects with Chinese partners than within the EEU.
The Moscow-Minsk tug-of-war is revelatory of a more structural problem the Kremlin has to face: COVID-19 neither fostered regional integration, nor boosted Russia’s leadership in the post-Soviet space. At the recent EEU e-summit on May 19th, the president of Kazakhstan, Qasym-Jomart Toqaev, has overtly refused to support the inclusion of health care (!), education and science, along with customs regulation and customer protection measures into the sphere of the EEU competences. Russia’s long-standing debate on gas price with Armenia and Belarus continues against the backdrop of the extremely challenging Moscow dynamics in the global energy market – thanks to the decision of the German court, the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, costing 11 billion US dollars, becomes (geo)politically far less useful. Due to decreasing demand for oil in the world, Russia will not be able to use cheap energy as a carrot for buying loyalties from its Eurasian partners.
All these trends diminish Russia’s ability to keep playing the role of the driver of Eurasian integration, and use it as a trump card in a power game with the European Union. Surprisingly, even a Valdai Club expert, representing Russia’s mainstream discourse, recognised that “Eurasian economic integration has begun to stall. Since the EEU Court is a practically non-functioning institution, the member countries are very poor at fulfilling their mutual obligations … It is possible that the participating countries now consider it more profitable to slow down and achieve greater sustainability, having temporarily sacrificed extensive development, both in terms of areas of co-operation and in the levels of the arrangement’s implementation.”
Secondly, since the outbreak of COVID-19 Russian mainstream media has increasingly depicted China as a source of threat rather than an ally, which appears to be a meaningful departure from Moscow’s turn from the West to East. Russia not only closed its borders with China earlier than its western borders, many of its public commentators implicitly admit that Russia is a second-rank player against the backdrop of the two “techno-economic blocs – American and Chinese”. It remains to be seen how ruinous these sober assessments will be for Russia’s traditional affection to multipolarity, as well as its penchant for equality with Beijing.
Third, none of Putin’s proposals – “green corridors” and the alleviation of sanctions against countries most affected by the pandemic – was internationally supported, which explains why many Russian experts do not seem to have illusions about any structural transformations in relations with the West for the foreseeable future, unless Russia changes its policies. Putin’s reiteration of Russia’s “distinct civilisational mission in the world” does not help much in this respect. The COVID-19 crisis makes it clear that Russia cannot afford an expensive global arms race, and the financial and technological gap with the United States will only be widened. One may agree that for the Kremlin “opportunities to score big on the cheap are growing ever scarcer”. Of course, Russia can take some short-lived advantage of performative actions such as the recent “humanitarian missions” in Italy and Serbia, yet they do not alter the long-term tendencies that are central for Moscow’s conflict with the EU and NATO. The COVID-19 crisis has only amplified the perception of Russia in the West as a country whose government is complicit in the mass falsification of information, which, in the current situation, exacerbates a lack of trust and further shrinks the scope for partnership.
Putin, to a large extent, fell victim to his own strategy of attaching high symbolic, almost sacred, importance to his policies that otherwise could have been implemented on a more technical background – from partnership with China to Eurasian integration, from Ukraine policy to relations with the West. But today, Russia has to accept that major problems are to be expected not from the West, which year after year has been portrayed as Russia’s major enemy, but from those expected to be Russia’s closest allies – China and Belarus. What can be anticipated in the short run is a more balanced discourse towards the EU and Russia’s western neighbours. The change in tone of the official narrative might be expected only in the medium term, and will largely depend on the extent to which Russian citizens would be able and willing to de-legitimatise Putin’s domestic rule and foreign policies. Their first chance will come on July 1st with the “people’s vote” on constitutional changes initiated by Putin to prolong his presidency and, by doing so, to further politically alienate Russia from Europe.
Andrey Makarychev is a visiting professor at the Johan Skytte Institute of Political Studies at the University of Tartu in Estonia.
This text is part of a special expert survey titled “Geopolitics and coronavirus” co-financed through an agreement with the Eastern Europe Department at the Polish Ministry of Foreign Affairs.