Russia’s strategic narrative helps neither Russia nor the West

By Ben O’Loughlin – with Alister Miskimmon - 19 May 2017

The idea has taken hold that Russia and the West are locked into a new period of information warfare, a new Cold War, that each side must do its best to win. Victory for Russia would mean returning to the top table as one of two or three Great Powers. Victory for the West would mean containing Russia’s influence as a disruptor of Western democracies, aggressor towards NATO states in Eastern Europe, and supporter of anti-Western regimes further afield. At its root, this is a collision of narratives about how world order should be recognized and where Russia fits. Given that this relationship must be managed carefully to avoid flipping from warfare to war, what are the prospects for Russia and the West finding a common narrative about the future of world order and why does this matter?

Our new analysis (free to read here) of Russia’s strategic narrative since 2000 shows Russian leaders project a remarkably consistent story both about how world order should function and about Russia’s role in that order. These themes include demands for recognition of Russia’s standing in the world by the West, an emphasis on pan-European cooperation under the Common European Home narrative, and a focus on the emergence of a new world order based on polycentrism. The consistency of the narration of Russia’s environment or sphere of influence, its role within it, serves as a tool to reinforce Russia’s post-Cold War identity and justify its actions internationally.

Russian narratives of international order create a space within which Russians and non-Russians can reflect on Russia’s role in the world. These narratives allow the Russian state to manage its self-identity. But those narratives also serve as a projection of state power, and as a means to exert persuasive force in international relations to governments and societies who may be receptive to elements of that narrative. Projecting these narratives has a purpose: Russia projects a strategic narrative that seeks to reinforce Russia’s global prestige and authority, whilst promoting multilateral legal and institutional constraints on other more powerful actors, as a means to ensure Russia stays among the top ranking great powers.

The post-Cold War order in Europe developed out of debates in the immediate aftermath of the fall of the Berlin Wall and were reinforced by the enlargement of NATO and the European Union to the borders of the former Soviet Union area.  Rather than being a co-creator of this emerging order, since the early 1990s Russia has complained about being excluded from the major decisions affecting it. As time passed, the Kremlin’s frustration at this exclusion triggered increasingly assertive action on their part, most strikingly in Ukraine, as Russia positions itself as forced to unilaterally defend what it perceives to be in its national interest.

At first glance, conditions now seem to be favourable towards Russia’s narrative. Recent EU policy documents express a shift towards value pluralism in the EU’s dealings with third parties. Foreign policy under the Trump administration does not appear committed to unipolar leadership or the promotion of universal values.  Emerging powers are gaining increasing voice in global governance. These trends all indicate a shift to multipolarity. However, this is not the kind of multipolarity envisaged by Russia.

Instead of the UN Security Council P5 governing world affairs hierarchically, akin to the 19th Century European congress, it may be that, structurally, 21st Century governance will be more fluid, based around issue-focused and regional coalitions. This is a world in which some issues are handled regionally, some intergovernmentally, and some with a degree of civil society or corporate participation in decision-making. In the terms of US legal professor William Burke-White, this is a world not of ‘fixed geometry’ but ‘variable geometry’, requiring continual mutual refinement and flexibility of all these actors’ narratives as they address common problems.  

It will be easier for the EU and NATO to adapt their narratives of order to this material situation as they continue to go through a process of refinement of their roles which began with the fall of the Berlin Wall. Contrary this this more future-orientated adaptation, Russia is adapting to its own, historically-facing narrative. It will be especially difficult for Russia to become a “good citizen” and play a constructive role, despite Russian leaders’ words concerning shared responsibility for transnational problems.

Despite this, all sides must seek some narrative convergence for cooperation to be possible at all. Russia will not disappear. However, when we look for narrative convergence, several problems arise.

Analysing Russian narratives can only suggest superficial points of convergence between Russia and the West, as a starting point for debates about more fundamental conceptual differences which must be addressed before major disagreements can be recognised and accounted for. Russian leaders communicate about points of connection with the West, yet have also been keen to stress Russian civilizational and cultural singularities. The West, however, largely understands international law and democracy to have universal normative and technical characteristics. The Russian model of plural civilisations undermines the possibility of a shared normative basis for institutions.

For example, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov suggests that ‘There’s no ideological differences as far as we are concerned’ and he goes on to highlight converging narratives around international law, democracy and the importance of markets. On that basis, there would appear to be a basis for Russia to play a ‘good citizen’ role tacking shared threats and acting as a pillar of the status quo. However, divergence on the meaning of these core concepts pinpoints where the challenges for communication exist.

Those outside Russia may find it incredible for Lavrov to claim Russia’s commitment to democracy. Yet as Russia expert Fiona Hill writes, this mis-communication creates frustration on all sides. Moves towards cooperation and shared governance based on these values leads to even deeper frustration when stark differences of interpretation emerge. Superficial linguistic correlations cannot disguise the contested understandings of core concepts of sovereignty and hierarchy in the international system.

This is also a challenge for the West. How can Western leaders publicly recognise and reflect on the fact that democracy, law and economic freedom are essentially contested concepts? These concepts come to be conceived and institutionalized in different times and places with different effects born of those specific contexts. Lo [link] argues that Russia’s understanding of these concepts and the translation of them in to institutions and actions is not fit for today’s global diffusion of power. However, Western powers need to vigilantly and relentlessly explain how and why this is the case.

Western powers must also be patient in instances where Russian leaders genuinely do not understand Western concepts and politics and have spent little time in the West. Those setting up the global television station RT as a counterweight to the BBC World Service, for example, may not have appreciated the immense institutional buffers that prevent the British government intervening in editorial policy of a state-funded organization like the BBC.

And whilst superficially China’s narrative of strong nation-states resonates with Russia’s conception, China’s national narrative of economic progress has seen it engage more systematically with the global economy – rather than looking primarily inward and backward for its future direction. China’s Belt and Road initiative is establishing regional networks to the point of challenging the regimes of Western powers and existing norms of global governance. China has the resources to put into practice a challenge to global order. Indeed, China’s initiative also challenges Russia’s own sphere of influence. Hence, even a great power ally that appears to share conceptual and normative ground with Russia is posing questions of Russia’s strategic narrative.

Despite some convergence in terms used, then, we find mis-aligned narratives resting on differing normative foundations. Without alignment, it is impossible for all parties to reach a common understanding about shared global problems and how to address them. Russia feels particularly mis-recognised but projects a vision of world order that appears unsuited to the fluid social and material dynamics of 21st century power. Yet this is a world order that ultimately will require collective agreements and cooperative action. Analysis of narratives demonstrates why this isn’t happening but offers the scope to work out how it can.

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