The twentieth year has brought Russia not only the coronavirus pandemic, but also new conflicts near our borders. The public opinion in the country was faced with the problem “Who can we consider friends in this troubled world?” With “enemies” (in quotes or without) in the post-Crimean politics, everything is generally clear, but who is the real friend of Russia? And what if our friends are at war with each other? Should we choose one of them and spoil the relationship with the other, or balance between them, risking losing the trust of both?
Against the backdrop of conflicts and the freezing of relations with Western countries in recent years, it is Asia that has become the main outpost of friendship for Russia in the world. And to the statements that after Crimea and Ukraine, Russia is now in isolation, there was always the answer: “No, there is China, India …” This is true, but over the past year there have been some nuances here.
As you know, the idea of the Russia-China-India triangle was proposed by Yevgeny Primakov Sr. back in the 1990s. It seemed impossible then, because the historical contradictions between China and India were too strong. But then common geopolitical interests and values led to the formation of the BRICS, India joined the SCO, and old problems faded into the background. But against this background, 2020 was marked by a whole series of border clashes between these countries. Public opinion in them was significantly radicalized. In these conditions, the question arose before our foreign policy: who is the greatest friend for Russia – China or India?
Let’s take out of the brackets the only possible official answer that Russia does not share its friends, and look at the background of these relations. On the one hand, the huge common border, the economy, and finally the geopolitical position in the same boat as opponents of the United States objectively make China the number one friend for modern Russia. This is true, but all this has led to the fact that hints have sometimes begun to appear among the Indian media that Russia is just a Chinese puppet and cannot be trusted in India. The intensification of military contacts between India and the United States led to the formulation of the question in Russia, that “we cannot lose India.”
As a result, there is a logical temptation to somewhat weaken the intensity of our ties with China (we are already friends and are in the same boat) and “switch” to India. In our expert circles, the idea of “Non-Aligned 2.0” began to be discussed, when in the context of a new bipolar conflict between the United States and China, it would be better for us not to occupy the Chinese side of the barricades, but together with India, act according to the model of the Non-Aligned Movement of the Cold War.
But all this, in turn, causes distrust of Russia already in China. This is combined there with the feeling that Moscow needs Beijing only in conditions of an acute post-Crimean conflict with the West. And as soon as relations somehow improve, Russia, they say, will immediately turn away from China for the sake of the West. Let’s not forget, to be honest, and the synophobia that persists in certain segments of our public opinion.
The Pakistani factor also adds nuances to this difficult balancing act between India and China. This country, together with India, joined the SCO, after which military cooperation between Russia and Pakistan is actively developing, and it would be strange to abandon it with a partner in the SCO. But all this is understandably provoking a complex reaction in India. At the same time, due to close Sino-Pakistani relations, the concept emerged that within the framework of the One Belt, One Road project launched by China, it has “two wings”: the southern wing (this is Pakistan) and the northern one (this is Russia). And it is clear that the assessments of all these approaches between our three friends are polar opposite.
Moscow has to make the same choice between warring friends in the Middle East. There are two conflicting groups of countries: one is led by the UAE and Saudi Arabia, and the other – by Qatar and Turkey. Both oil and gas and geopolitical interests make Russia interested in cooperation with both of these groups. But this also leads to the fact that the Russian Federation, especially in the conflict in Libya, finds itself at the crossroads of enmity between these countries. Here, the skill of very subtle, grandmaster balancing becomes the most important guarantee of success.
In the post-Soviet space in 2020, we have all seen the most obvious example of such a situation of warring friends: the Karabakh conflict. Here Russia managed to stop the war. But we all remember how acute the polemic was in our society, whose side we need to take in this conflict, and whether it is necessary at all. Karabakh also led to a sharp increase in informational lobbying within Russia on the part of the opposing states. In our opinion, clearly visible attempts to manipulate the Russian media agenda from the outside were of an unprecedented nature and became a new real threat to Russian information security, the scale of the consequences of which has yet to be assessed.
All of these examples dealt with entire states. But the political conflict in Belarus has put another sharp choice before our public opinion – between the authorities and the people in a friendly country. Should we, by supporting the government, lose the confidence of the people? Or vice versa? Or try to find a balance here too? In any case, the Belarusian conflict has led to a breakdown of media stereotypes and taboos in the Russian information space. In the heat of passions, it was not without informational lobbying from the outside.
Thus, in 2021, the key quality for Russian foreign policy will be the ability to balance between warring friends – both between states and between the authorities and the people in these countries. Ideally, reconcile them, but at least the minimum task is not to lose the trust of any of them.
Author – Program Director of the Valdai Club, Professor of MGIMO
The editorial position may not coincide with the opinion of the author